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12 January 2022updated 15 Jan 2022 11:53am

Leader: The great unvaxxed

Faced with the challenge of the unvaccinated, governments should seek to persuade citizens, not condemn them.

By New Statesman

As the world emerges haltingly from the Covid-19 pandemic, a new divide is disrupting society: that between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. The former enjoy far greater protection against the virus and its variants and are significantly less likely to require health and hospital care. As governments bear the cost of new waves of infections, how and whether they should punish the unjabbed has become a defining policy question.

In Australia, the world tennis number one Novak Djokovic has been embroiled in a struggle with the authorities over whether his refusal to be vaccinated means he is ineligible to play in the Australian Open, one of the four tennis majors. Such clashes will become commonplace as other elite athletes adopt a similar stance.

It is not only Australia – Mr Djokovic spent five nights in a detention hotel after he arrived in the country – which has taken an uncompromising approach. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has expressed the wish to “piss off” the unvaccinated. His government plans to ban millions of people who remain unjabbed from restaurants, cafés, cinemas and theatres (at present a negative Covid-19 test result is sufficient). “An irresponsible person is no longer a citizen,” Mr Macron declared.

[See also: Does Novak Djokovic deserve any sympathy?]

Across Europe, such restrictions are increasingly common. Last November Austria imposed a lockdown on 1.6 million unvaccinated adults, and its leaders plan to make vaccines mandatory from next month, with fines of up to €3,600 for those who refuse to comply. Italy has made vaccination compulsory for all citizens aged over 50. Perhaps most radically, Singapore has announced that people who are “unvaccinated by choice” will be required to pay for their own healthcare.

By comparison, the UK’s position appears relatively modest. For entry to nightclubs and large venues, citizens must now prove either that they have received two jabs or that they have recently tested negative for Covid (around 9 per cent, or five million people, remain unvaccinated in the UK). More contentious, however, is the planned introduction of mandatory vaccination for all front-line NHS staff in April.

On 7 January, as Louise Perry writes on page 9, Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, was challenged by Steve James, an unvaccinated consultant anaesthetist at King’s College Hospital, London, who claimed that “the science is not strong enough” to justify the government’s policy. As many as 100,000 NHS staff remain unjabbed, creating the conditions for a new crisis. The government has estimated that as many as 73,000 people may leave the service rather than comply. Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, has warned that entire units of hospitals may have to close “in extreme circumstances”.

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In the UK, as elsewhere, the data is unambiguously in favour of vaccination. An unvaccinated 50-year-old who has Covid-19 is around five times more likely to be hospitalised than a vaccinated one. After much initial scaremongering (including, ironically, by Mr Macron), the AstraZeneca vaccine and others have been shown to be safe for the overwhelming majority of patients. Such findings prompted Tony Blair to declare that, “If you’re not vaccinated and you’re eligible, you’re not just irresponsible, you’re an idiot.” But insults merely embolden conspiracy theorists and extremists.

Faced with the challenge of the unvaccinated, governments should seek to persuade, rather than condemn. Poorer households and ethnic minorities – groups that have an understandable mistrust of state institutions – are among those least likely to have received a vaccine. This is symptomatic not of mass ignorance, or malice, but of a deeper social disconnection. After a decade of austerity and harsh welfare and immigration policies, far too many people only encounter the state in a hostile form.

A noble example was provided by Dr Azhar Farooqi, a Leicester-based GP, who discovered that hundreds of his highest-risk patients were refusing to be vaccinated. He responded by tirelessly phoning each one to discover why – and 70 per cent went on to book an appointment. In a digital age, we too easily forget the value of human contact. If governments truly wish to persuade those who reject bureaucratic overtures and are sceptical of state dictats on vaccines, they should understand a little more and condemn a little less in this time of pandemic.

[See also: Does Novak Djokovic deserve any sympathy?]

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This article appears in the 12 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The age of economic rage