‘Mandatory vaccinations are possible, but difficult to imagine’
Professor of Health Law Martin Buijsen researched the legal options of mandatory vaccinations. “You can restrict all kinds of rights based on public health, as long as that restriction has legal grounds, is deemed necessary and is proportionate.”
The corona vaccine is good news. But how do you ensure that everyone will go and get it? Martin Buijsen, philosopher and professor of Health Law, on the subject of mandatory vaccination: “I have few doubts about the outcome of this discussion. The clamour of the anti-vaxxers will be drowned out by actual scientific evidence.”
Why is it important to consider mandatory vaccinations?
“To achieve any form of herd immunity, vaccination rates must be brought up above 80 percent as quickly as possible. A recently conducted random survey shows that less than three-quarters of the Dutch are willing to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Another indicator we have is the enthusiasm there is for the annual vaccine against the seasonal flu. In 2018 – these are the most recent figures – only 51 percent of high-risk patients signed up for the flu shot. Among healthcare personnel, the figure is 13 to 28 percent. When it comes to Covid-19, it is hard to imagine achieving the vaccination coverage you need without using any pressure, force or an intensive information campaign.”
Surely people feel this sense of urgency a little more strongly now than they do with the annual flu shot?
“Generally speaking, the sense of urgency for vaccination is not felt as keenly, simply because people are unaware of the grave dangers of infectious diseases.”
You are a philosopher and a lawyer. Which hat do you wear when it comes to mandatory vaccinations?
“That of a lawyer. I investigated whether it would be possible to enact a law to force people to be vaccinated. I also looked into whether such a law would violate any greater human rights, such as the ones that we are bound by in the European and international human rights treaties.”
Would a mandatory vaccination conflict with human rights?
“No. We are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights. It contains an article that states that people have a right to life, and that we are obligated to take measures to protect that life. Seen in this light – and everyone agrees on this – a state should in any event make a vaccination program readily available. But there is also Article 8 that stipulates that people have the right to privacy, which includes physical integrity. Plus, Article 9 stipulates that people have freedom of thought, conscience and religion. You could argue that a law that forces people to be vaccinated violates these two articles. Nevertheless, exercising those rights may be restricted under certain conditions; for example, if public health is at risk.”
The Netherlands does not currently have compulsory vaccinations, does it?
“No. The entire national vaccination program is on a voluntary basis, with the exception of a minor law that applies to military personnel. But there are countries, and they are in the same human rights treaty as we are, that do uphold compulsory vaccinations. France and Italy, for instance.”
How far does that requirement go there?
“Children who have not been vaccinated may be excluded from some facilities such as day care centres and schools; even parents can be refused child benefits. This is what we generally define as mandatory vaccination. We don’t pluck people off the streets to physically force them to undergo a vaccination, of course not, but we do encourage them to take part. There is also a law in the Netherlands that makes it possible for day care centres to refuse unvaccinated children. A similar law was already approved in Germany this spring. But these are reactions to the declining vaccination rates for ‘common’ infectious diseases. That kind of law is nowhere near far-reaching enough for the whole country to be immunized against Covid-19 very quickly.”