At the beginning of last December the newly appointed minister with special responsibility for the vaccine programme suggested that having the Covid-19 vaccine would be a ‘passport’ to being able to do things that might otherwise be denied -such as visiting a pub, cinema, or using public transport. He was quickly slapped down, but ever since there has been a measure of ambiguity in the Government’s approach.
For months worried constituents have been contacting me to voice their fears that vaccination would be compulsory. I have responded by saying that they should not worry because it is unthinkable. Under existing law it would constitute an assault: So primary legislation in Parliament would be required to enable it, and that in my estimate a majority would not be found for such a radical departure. It would set a worrying precedent for other vaccines, medicines and medical procedures. Nevertheless, ministers have certainly been raising the possibility that vaccination may be a requirement but only for certain professions
I expect however, that the concept of a vaccination certificate being used as a passport to freedoms and opportunities which would otherwise be denied, might be more palatable -superficially at least. My fear is that there would be a reluctance to enable such a regime by statute, setting out what may or may not be accessed without having had the vaccination. The danger arises from a more likely possibility, that it might be left to the discretion of operators and proprietors whether to admit non-vaccinated patrons to their venues and services.
The issue raises an interesting philosophical question which is by no means new: Are our rights fundamental and absolute, or are they to be balanced by our responsibilities to society at large through some legislative process, democratic or otherwise? If you take the latter view you might conclude that a citizen has a responsibility be vaccinated to protect the community as a whole, and if that responsibility is not accepted, then it would be reasonable to withhold rights and freedoms. I have often had to produce my Yellow Fever vaccination certificate to enter those countries where it is a legal requirement. There does seem to me however, to be something repugnant about being coerced into having a medical procedure by the prospect of being denied certain opportunities, it would certainly be a departure from long established limits. There is however, a practical solution without troubling the moral philosophers: The herd immunity that vaccination promotes can be achieved with vaccination rates that fall well short of everyone having had the jab. We should be able to make the vaccine effective whilst tolerating the non-cooperation of conscientious objectors. Overwhelmingly, most of us will have the jab because we recognise that it is in our own self-interest, as well as the interests of everyone else. Certainly, the up-take rates are very satisfactory so far and special efforts are being made to reach and persuade those communities with lower vaccination rates.
The last thing we should contemplate is coercion of any kind. Nothing could be more calculated to play into the hands of the conspiracy theorists. It might even end with public disorder on a scale with which we have hitherto been relatively unfamiliar.
The question of vaccination passports appears to have landed, for the present at any rate, upon the expectation that they are going to be required for most international travel and so the Government must therefore proceed to develop the technology to support that requirement at the very least. Then, having developed the system to support international travel, inevitably the question arises as to whether the use should extend beyond that. The Prime Minister has told Conservative MPs that although he personally finds the idea distasteful, but that this is a debate that has to be had. Debates and votes in Parliament on the issue will be a welcome return to normality following a year of rule by ‘decree’ under powers granted to government under the provisions of the Public Health Act 1984 (how prescient Orwell was in his choice of name for his dystopian novel). What would be inexcusable would be to allow a system of ad hoc exclusions to develop based on vaccinated status, without thoroughly democratic scrutiny.
Written by Rt Hon Sir Desmond Swayne MP
- twitter @DesmondSwayne
Rt Hon Sir Desmond Swayne is the Conservative Member of Parliament for New Forest West, and has been an MP continuously since 1 May 1997. Sir Desmond was knighted in the Queen’s 90th Birthday Honours list in June 2016. He was made a Privy Councillor in the New Year’s Honours List 2012.
Appointments in Government - Minister of State (Department for International Development) 2014 – 2016
- Vice Chamberlain of Her Majesty’s Household 2013 – 2014
- Lord Commissioner 2012 – 2013
- Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Prime Minister 2010 – 2012
Appointments in Opposition
- Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Leader of the Opposition 2004 – 2010
- Opposition Whip 2001 – 2004
- Shadow Minister 1999 – 2001
Sir Desmond has served in the following select committees:
- Administration, Procedure, Defence, Social Security, Scotland
- He is currently a member of the International Trade Committee.
- He is Chairman of the Conservative Friends for International Development