Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, Health Minister Matt Hancock said of the 19 people in Royal Bolton Hospital who have Covid,
‘The majority have not been vaccinated and, of them, most could have been vaccinated, which is frustrating to see, but is also a message to everyone. It just reinforces the message that people should come forward and get vaccinated because that is the best way to protect everybody.’
I was quite taken aback by his directness. Openly criticising the voters is not a great look. Of course it’s frustrating that people should – for whatever reasons – decide not to have the vaccine. It’s an argument which belongs in the same area as the one about seat belt wearing.
But on some level, people surely must have the right to choose – and I guess they have that right whether their choice arises from a genuinely held fear or from contextual issues or even from conspiracy theories.
But equally surely the right to choose can’t be exercised in a way which takes no account of the consequences and particularly of the consequences for others. Those of us who have been offered and have accepted vaccination have seen that as a way of keeping ourselves and others safe. Those who refuse vaccination have the same obligation – to act in a way which is most likely to keep themselves and others safe.
Sadly the nature of Covid – and of the ever more transmissible strains such as the Indian variant – is that it is hard to see how those who refuse vaccination are going to be able to fulfil that obligation to the rest of society even as they exercise their right to choose. Society could decide that to uphold that right in this circumstances is not viable. That would mean that vaccination would become compulsory. But that is clearly both impossible and undesirable.
There is no simple answer to this issue – it’s just one more example of the way in which Covid and our response as a society to it has in effect removed significant areas of personal freedom from every one of us. And part of the journey back from this terrible period in our lives is going to be that of working out how those freedoms are going to be restored.