A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of compulsory vaccination.

In the face of the Omicron variant, European governments are escalating in their anti-Covid measures. Compulsory vaccination is on the table, but so is the idea of going back to at least partial lockdowns. It is interesting that by now shutting down at least part of social life is sort of a default option, happily embraced by governments and experts as a first resort application of the precautionary principle. “When in doubt shut down”. Who would have predicted this, say, two years ago?

One of the reasons for this is a particular belief which has been circulated since Sars-Cov-2 reached us from Wuhan: the idea that “closed societies” are better at protecting people and fighting epidemics than open societies. Interestingly enough, those holding this belief do not waste their time in producing any evidence in support of their contentions. The idea that individual liberty is a nuisance in a pandemic is sort of taken for granted. This meant and still means that the tougher things get, the less justification is apparently needed to curtail older liberties.

Since Omicron appeared, just to recap, Ursula van der Leyen, the EU’s President, has mentioned the possibility of compulsory vaccination all through Europe; Germany, which thus far has not made recourse to this measure, went for a “lockdown of the unvaccinated,” and even Portugal, where 87% of the population is double jabbed, tightened rules including a compulsory week of “remote working” on January 2 to 9.

I fear the consequence of this activism may actually damage vaccinations, fueling the very vaccine skepticism that it is aimed to contrast. The same can be said of making vaccination mandatory. People tend to believe that compulsory vaccination means the police going home by home and jabbing people, resorting to force when needed. Well, not quite: you will always have a portion of the population which objects to the measure, and perhaps in a more vocal way.

The Guardian ran an interesting survey of the pros and cons of compulsory vaccination. There may be unintended consequences or, if you prefer, side effects (pardon the puns). In particular:

“There are a number of concerns, including that it may risk undermining public confidence in public health measures.

“I think the main problem is public backlash, increase in polarisation and the possibility of political parties gaining ground on the anti-vaxx ticket,” said Dr Samantha Vanderslott of the Oxford Vaccine Group. “Also it might ignore improvement of vaccine services and access to vaccines,” she said.
Savulescu also pointed out concerns. “The risks are public confidence in government but more importantly, liberty should only be restricted to the least extent necessary. Unless the public health system is on the verge of collapse, it is hard to justify treating the decision to treat the unvaccinated differently to the decision to smoke, drink alcohol, eat unhealthily, not exercise etc,” he said, adding if mandatory policies were brought in, they should be as selective as possible.
“The Greek approach of making [Covid] vaccination mandatory for over-60s is more ethically defensible than the Austrian or German proposals to make it mandatory for all adults,” he said.”