With the announcement of the rollout of vaccines for COVID-19, there has been discussion on whether it should be made compulsory for individuals to be vaccinated. On 14 December 2020 the UK Parliament debated this topic in Westminster Hall, as a result of an e-petition.
The law on mandatory vaccination
Earlier this year, social media posts claimed that UK legislation had been amended, with the effect of enabling mandatory vaccination. This claim was debunked by both Reuters and Full Fact, pointing out that current legislation (see section 45E) explicitly prohibits mandatory vaccination. However, the law does allow the compulsory quarantine of individuals at home (section 45B(2)).
The opportunity of vaccination
Vaccination began in the 19th century as a means of addressing diseases caused by viruses. The principle of a vaccine is to trigger your body to produce an antibody to prevent you from contracting a disease — or limiting its effects — from the actual virus. When vaccines are available, some viral diseases can be globally eradicated (no opportunity for re-emergence) or locally eliminated. To achieve this, a sufficient proportion of the population needs to be immunised, otherwise referred to as “herd immunity”. Achieving immunisation via vaccination will never be possible for 100 per cent of a population, because it may not be suitable for some people, such as those who are immunosuppressed.
Data shows that COVID-19 is more deadly than the usual seasonal influenza. Relying on building up herd immunity through natural exposure to the virus could contribute to an accelerated excess death figure that could overwhelm any health care system; hence government actions globally on social restrictions. The arrival of vaccines provides the option to develop herd immunity more quickly with people with known underlying health conditions vaccinated ahead of people expected to be less vulnerable to the effects of the virus.
As COVID-19 is a disease caused by a novel virus — literally a new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 — the threshold figure for herd immunity is unknown. The current objective is to reduce the rate of transmission, known as the R-number, below 1.0.
UK Government COVID-19 vaccination plan
The UK Government has announced its COVID-19 vaccine rollout plan, beginning with vaccinators, residents and staff in care homes, then proceeding with a priority list based on vulnerable segments of the population, including health care workers. An immediate objective is to reduce the number of people who die from COVID-19 (as a primary or secondary cause), thereby reducing excess deaths. However, to attempt to eliminate this disease, a greater portion of the population will need to build up antibodies.
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