Artillery Row

To vax or not to vax?

If the Government wants a coronavirus vaccine to succeed, it must first assuage public fear

I am on the YouGov polling panel. As such, I get the odd request to fill in their online surveys. This week there were two stand-out questions, hidden between the charity profiling and television show hucksterism.

The first asked whether you would support the government making Coronavirus vaccination compulsory. The second – perhaps more worryingly – was the obvious follow up: “Would you support or oppose the Government prosecuting and fining people who do not get a vaccination against coronavirus?”

Katie Bingham, the Government’s “Jabs Tsar”, told the Financial Times the same day that she only wants half of the population to be vaccinated. One has to take Bingham’s words with a pinch of salt given that in May, Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said:

The question of whether it is mandatory is not one that we have addressed yet. We are still some time off a vaccine being available. But I would hope given the scale of this crisis and given the overwhelming need for us to get through this and to get the country back on its feet and the very positive impact that a vaccine would have that everybody would have the vaccine.

Hancock is also on record wishing to overturn the conscientious objection aspect of childhood vaccination, so he has form on medical compulsion.

We tolerate anti-vaxxers as part of the broad compass of a liberal state

We have been here before, back in the nineteenth century. The story of vaccination begins with the experimentation of a Gloucestershire country doctor, Edward Jenner. It was he who first scraped cowpox into the arm of an eight years’ old, James Phipps, in 1796. A few weeks later he tested that same child with smallpox and found that the first provided protection from the second. This he had surmised from watching the relative invulnerability of milkmaids to the deadly smallpox.

Since then the science of immunology and the development of vaccinations have saved millions of lives and protected countless numbers, through driving disease into smaller and smaller pockets, creating artificial herd immunity. But the story of vaccine scepticism – especially compulsory vaccine scepticism – has a history almost as long. The Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League was founded in 1866 and only ceased publication of its journal in 1972.

Universal, compulsory vaccination is not part of the armoury of British public healthcare, unlike healthcare systems in other, less free, societies. It was obligatory between the 1853 and 1898 Vaccination Acts when vaccinations were compulsory for those between three months and fourteen years. But by 1898 public protest had forced the government to allow conscientious objection to vaccination, protections that were strengthened in 1907. It was even one of Labour’s sixteen manifesto pledges in 1900.

We all know that at birth it is made clear that the Government, and society at large, expect us to take part in the varieties of childhood vaccination. For the most part, we comply because we can see the clear efficacy.

We tolerate and allow anti-vaxxers as part of the broad compass of a liberal state that values liberty. We value it, no matter how much that liberty seems foolish to the vast majority.

The nineteenth century anti-vax movement was, as the growing movement here is now, an amalgam of the middle class, and a larger working-class opposition. To the latter, it is largely about the infringement of personal liberty.

These historical rejections of governmental medical coercion reflected then, and certainly reflects now, a broad concern over state intervention in personal and family space.

KCL commissioned a poll that made it clear significant numbers would refuse vaccination

To look at the people gathered in protest in Trafalgar Square last month, we see a near mirror of those involved in the campaign against compulsion in the late-nineteenth century. According to Professor Nadja Durbach, a historian of English medicine, back then activists were often also religious dissenters, trade unionists, and radicals. They were opponents of vivisection, and were supporters of temperance, vegetarianism, and alternative medicine. This made them an effective parliamentary lobby. The campaign was far more than that, as it became a militant mass movement, given to outré demonstrations and vigorous protests: one that coexisted with the Labour movement and in part with the Suffragette movement to come.

Hundreds were arrested, thousands fined, and many imprisoned. But in the end, they forced the government to concede, in law, for the very first time, the principle of conscientious objection. A concession that was to have a huge impact at the outbreak of the Great War and ever since.

In August this year, King’s College London commissioned a poll that made it clear that significant numbers would refuse vaccination. Just over half the population (53 percent) say they would be certain or very likely to get a vaccine. Meanwhile (16 percent) say they are unlikely to or will not get a vaccine for coronavirus. In September that number hardly shifted to 52 percent and 15 percent.

But these polls did not touch on compulsory vaccination – a very different prospect – as it would be for adults instead of infants: adults who have opinions and who right now do not trust this government or its reliance on very shaky science, to back its flaky approach to Covid-19 social engineering.

That is where YouGov’s poll comes in. I suspect that the numbers will be very different. There is – or at least was – something about compulsion that sticks, very dryly, in the throats of people from these islands.

There is also something very odd coming out of the polling responses to governmental demands for greater restrictions to Covid-19. When asked, over 60 percent say that they will comply according to Kings College London. But when asked if they have complied fully with self-isolating regulations, only 11 percent admitted to complying fully. Often we see polling that has the public demanding more and greater restrictions, egged on by significant chunks of the mainstream media.

It is clear that many have no desire to be tracked or traced by the government

Either we have extremely shy rebels, or people do not see Covid-19 as great a risk as the government and public bodies would have us believe. Over 10 million of us have downloaded the government’s track and trace app, itself quite an impressive take-up. However, that is less than a fifth of those that own smartphones in the UK. Given that one cannot walk down a road without seeing advertisements, and every shop, café, and pub are required to enforce its use, 20 percent isn’t that effective. There are of course various reasons why people are not doing so – not least laziness – but looking at social media platforms it is clear that many have no desire to be tracked or traced by the government.

People are very worried about data security, and about the people and companies behind the project. Commercial and civil liberties issues are both mentioned regularly. Given the government’s track record on IT efficacy, security, and data protection, these concerns are entirely justified.

Rather than allay public concerns, the government starts to talk of compulsion

Vaccination has been Gloucestershire’s greatest gift to humanity. Countless millions of lives have been saved, and they will continue to be saved. The effect of mass vaccination starves a disease, a virus, of fresh pastures, so helps those who have – and those who haven’t – had the procedure. When a new vaccine is discovered, particularly to fight a novel disease like Covid-19, then there will be huge pressure to get it into production, because it is a potential lifesaver, and will allow us to return to the old normal. But the general public will have to be convinced that it is safe.

Arrogantly, government figures, rather than allay those concerns, start to talk of compulsion. When questions start appearing, in the ether, querying whether the authorities should start implementing sanctions against those who refuse to comply, it all seems a little bit precious. Will clinics have enforcers? Will the district nurse have armed Covid-19 marshals at her side as she does her rounds? The very thought was absurd in this country. Or it was until very recently. Right now, I am not so sure.

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