By John Greenall
On November 11th the law came into force that ‘anyone working or volunteering in a care home will need to be fully vaccinated against coronavirus (COVID-19), unless exempt.’ All frontline healthcare staff will be asked to do the same by April 2022. It is predicted that numerous staff will leave the profession rather than have the vaccine.
The reasons for this seem obvious on the surface. We are told that vaccinations will protect vulnerable people who care workers (and later all NHS staff) encounter. There is strong public support for this given the nervousness around ongoing high rates of coronavirus infection and the news that a hight number of COVID cases were contracted in hospitals. Many of us are sensitive to the fact we have relatives in care homes but also those who are clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV). Surely our instinct should be to protect those who are vulnerable. For the ‘strong’ to modify their behaviour to protect the ‘weak’. And of course, no man is an island! In our society we regularly restrict our freedoms to protect others.
I’m going to argue that mandating vaccines for healthcare workers is a profoundly bad idea and should trouble us, whether we are Christians or not. We’ll then consider what it means for us at Hope Church. Here’s some reasons:
- It won’t keep you ‘safe’. We have data on the AstraZeneca and Pfizer jabs. They are thought to reduce transmission by 36% and 65% respectively (we have no data yet for other vaccines). However, by 3 months this reduces to no difference, and one must account for the fact many who won’t feel unwell enough to be off work will work and still be at risk of transmitting COVID. The point is vaccines are one part of a wider strategy. They may see a small decrease in transmission but will need to be combined with other measures.
- Government priorities are varied. Governments are elected by the public and will therefore respond to public pressure. There is overwhelming support for vaccine mandates from a fearful public (I think understandably given the use of fear to drive behaviour in 2020). The government comes across very well here as ‘protecting people’, ‘doing what it takes’ and ensuring a healthcare workforce are healthy enough to be in work. It is important to recognise that reducing COVID rates are not the only motivation for a government – that’s just how it is as they look at the bigger picture.
- Vaccines have never been mandated before. We need to see that this really is a HUGE step. In the face of many outbreaks of serious illness we have never mandated a vaccine before, especially one that is still so new to market with a limited track history. We know from countries like France that enforcing vaccines backfires – people decide to refuse vaccines in the medium to long run, causing far more disease as a result.
- Honouring conscience. I would argue that mandating a vaccine counts as coercion (defined as the practice of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats – in this case the threat of losing your job). To pass a law like this, the government is overriding a personal decision made in good conscience (defined as ‘a person’s moral sense of right and wrong, viewed as acting as a guide to one’s behaviour’). The UN Convention of Human Rights Article 9 states that to do this a government must be convinced that such interventions must be lawful, legitimate and proportionate.
So, is a vaccine mandate legitimate and proportionate (now that it is lawful)? We know there are many people who, for various reasons, do not want to take a vaccine. It is easy for people to simply throw stones and accuse them of being selfish. Or of being taken in by conspiracy theories. Apart from the fact that mandating something will just entrench anyone in those positions (and some do of course exist!), most vaccine refusers I meet have other reasons* that are being refused exempt status. Personally, I feel there is enough evidence and reason for these NOT to be barriers. But that’s me, coming from my background, with my perspective. To say the conscience of another should be overruled is a serious thing and I would argue, disproportionate to the benefit it may produce.
- A reduced and impoverished workforce. Care workers are leaving, in a profession which relies on the goodwill of people often paid similarly to a fast-food position. The sector is already understaffed, and it is quite feasible that further reductions will cause far more harm to clients and CEV people. In addition, it causes further harm, in particular to BAME groups who are often in the majority of care home staff. Instead of dismissing concerns and calling on people to ‘just get on with it and get the jab’ we need to listen carefully to concerns around historical abuses of power, and through patient and respectful dialogue seek to persuade people to have the jab (more than anything because of the evidence it will protect them far more than it protects others!).
- A coercive environment. We have moved hugely over the past 2 years to a position where the government have mandated restrictions to the private life of their citizens. A simple reading of history (or look at the book ‘Brave New World’) tells us where things go and the worst thing about it is that people willingly accept intrusions into privacy and personal life in the name of safety. We become pleased when others are coerced to keep us ‘safe’, without considering the long-term impact of such a worldview. I don’t think ‘the government is calculating secretly to ‘take control of our lives’ – instead it’s a progressive move where people genuinely call on the government to protect them and will sacrifice more and more liberties to do so. Governments want re-election so will go with it and give what the majority want as stated above. Freedom of conscience and freedom from coercion are fundamental aspects of our society: there will be all sorts of unforeseen consequences down the road if we don’t value them properly. Consider a position you hold in conscience. Perhaps it’s the right to determine how you bring up your child. Perhaps it’s the right to gather for public worship. I could go on. The point is, people have died for our country to be a place where people are free to choose. Whether I agree or not with that, it is a nuclear option to railroad conscience.
I believe that as Christians we should look to protect the right to freedom of conscience and belief. Above all else, it will lead to a more healthy and united society.
Within our church I would urge us not to make a disputable matter an issue of division. I believe Romans 14 speaks to us here. We are called to welcome and not despise our brothers and sisters who are fully convinced in their own minds that they cannot in good conscience take this vaccine. It is not for us to pass judgment on one another on disputable matters, ultimately each of us will give an account to God and it is before him that we stand or fall (see verse 13). Perhaps the ‘stronger’ vaccinated Christian can support, stand up and speak for the ‘weaker’ unvaccinated brother’s freedom of conscience in healthcare and wider society.
*Such reasons include those rooted in historical suspicion of government mandates, especially for some ethnic minority groups. Objections around the complicity in abortions in the making of some of the vaccines. Fear of side effects, which, despite a presentation of the evidence, someone still decides that they have autonomy over their body and what goes into it.