ANDREW NEIL: Time to punish Britain's five million vaccine refuseniks

It’s time to punish Britain’s five million vaccine refuseniks: They put us all at risk of more restrictions, says ANDREW NEIL. So why shouldn’t we curb some of their freedoms?

It’s time to punish Britain’s five million vaccine refuseniks, writes ANDREW NEIL

Last night I took a friend out to dinner near my home in the South of France. At the restaurant door we were politely asked for our vaccine passports, the QR codes on our smartphones were scanned and we were ushered to our table.

The check had taken seconds — a very minor inconvenience when a new wave of the coronavirus pandemic is sweeping across the Continent.

There was a sense of safety in knowing that all the other diners had proved themselves to be fully vaccinated, or had very recently tested negative, or had contracted the virus and recovered.

If smartphones are a bit recherché for you, you can print out a paper version of your vaccine passport. It works just as well. 

One friend who won’t give up his ancient, very unsmart, mobile, has pasted his paper passport onto the back of his phone. That’s probably even more efficient than fiddling with your smartphone to find the QR code.

It’s been like this in France since early August when vaccine passports became mandatory for cinemas, museums, restaurants, theatres, bars, nightclubs, planes and long-distance trains.

At first, there was some pushback — and some argy-bargy from those who turned up at a venue but had forgotten their passports. Now it’s just part of the routine of living with the virus.

Of course, it’s not foolproof. Nothing is. People who have been vaccinated can still contract and pass on the virus.

ANDREW NEIL: There are still 5 million unvaccinated British adults, who through fear, ignorance, irresponsibility or sheer stupidity refuse to be jabbed. In doing so they endanger not just themselves but the rest of us. Pictured: A NHS Covid pass on a smartphone

But vaccination substantially reduces the risk of serious illness and hospitalisation, which is why medical experts are unanimous in their view that the more people who are vaccinated the better the chance we all have of beating this virus.

In France, vaccine scepticism was initially rampant but the week after President Emmanuel Macron announced the vaccine-passport policy, a record 3.7 million people booked to get their jabs.

As a result of vaccine passports now being mandatory for most things the French regard as making life worth living — such as going to restaurants, bars and cafés — France has now caught up with countries, such as Britain, which were once far ahead of it in the vaccine stakes.

The percentage of people with two jabs is now virtually the same on both sides of the Channel. France has vaccinated more citizens with one jab than Britain, Germany or Italy — 50 million out of a population of 67 million.

Young French people, previously sceptical of the need to be jabbed, have rushed to get vaccine passports so they can go out at night with their friends.

Which is a very good reason why Britain should follow the French example — and also take note of what other European countries are doing — and penalise the vaccine refuseniks.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Boris Johnson hinted at tougher rules for the unvaccinated.

There are still 5 million unvaccinated British adults, who through fear, ignorance, irresponsibility or sheer stupidity refuse to be jabbed. In doing so they endanger not just themselves but the rest of us.

If they contract Covid, it is they who will put the biggest strain on the NHS, denying the rest of us with serious non-Covid ailments the treatment that is our right. We are all paying a heavy price for this hard core of the unvaccinated.

As long as they can be numbered in the millions, the nation will remain unnecessarily vulnerable to the latest variant, meaning more lockdowns, more restrictions on our lives, more lost jobs, more failing business, less economic growth — all of which will follow the Government’s introduction of its so-called Plan B of enhanced restrictions this week.

Of course, there is a small number of people who, for medical reasons, cannot be vaccinated. Those in that category can be identified and helped with regular testing to make sure they’re Covid-free. 

But for the rest it is simply selfish not to be vaccinated. We all have a responsibility to act in ways that don’t just protect our own health but also that of others.

Pictured: People hold up placards as they march during an anti-vax rally and protest against vaccination and government restrictions designed to control or mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, including the wearing of masks and lockdowns, in Liverpool last year

The evidence from France strongly suggests that if the unvaccinated see they will pay a price in terms of where they can go and what they can do, then they will think again and rush to be jabbed.

I am not, however, in favour of compulsory vaccination and yesterday I was relieved to hear Health Secretary Sajid Javid saying it would be ‘unethical’ to make jabs compulsory after some misinterpreted the Prime Minister’s call for a ‘national conversation on the way forward’ to mean that mandatory jabs were being considered.

There is something very unBritish about compulsory vaccination. I don’t understand how you’d do it in a free society. Are we really going to round up the unvaxxed, strap them to a chair and stick needles in their arms against their will?

I would not even go as far as Greece, which plans to fine all those over 60 who refuse to be jabbed 100 euros (£85) a month from mid-January until they agree to be vaccinated.

Older people are more vulnerable than any other age group and those who refuse to be jabbed are foolish. But the over 60s can be pretty bolshie, so what happens when hundreds of thousands refuse to pay the fines?

Is the Greek government really going to fill its jails with pensioners? It might make more sense to pay them 100 euros to be jabbed.

Austria, which is already back in full lockdown, is also planning to fine adult refuseniks of any age, starting at €3,600 (£3,075) and rising to €7,200 (£6,150). Perhaps Austrians are more compliant than Greeks, but I reckon this policy will run into the same problems.

Even Germany is considering the nuclear option. The newly installed Chancellor Olaf Scholz is in favour of mandatory vaccination and is expected to offer a free vote on the issue in the Bundestag, Berlin’s parliament.

The evidence from France strongly suggests that if the unvaccinated see they will pay a price in terms of where they can go and what they can do, then they will think again and rush to be jabbed. Pictured: A nurse prepares to give a vaccine to a woman in Glasgow on Wednesday

We are far from alone in implementing new restrictions as Christmas approaches, and throughout Europe infections are rising against the backdrop of growing concern about the Omicron variant.

But we can learn from what other countries are doing even if not all they are implementing would be right for us.

Under Plan B, vaccine passports will be required for entry to nightclubs and at major gatherings at large venues. It would not be difficult to extend them, French-style, to other public places, including restaurants, pubs and bars, and non-essential shops (even the unvaxxed need food and medicines!).

It would give those of us who’ve done the right thing more protection and for those who’ve not, pause for thought.

I’m not impressed by those who claim this is an egregious assault on our freedoms. Liberty is not the same as unbridled licence to do what you want, which is the road to anarchy.

You can’t shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded cinema if there is no fire. Real liberty for all involves a balance between rights and responsibilities.

My right to visit certain African countries is balanced by my responsibility to be inoculated for yellow fever before I go. You cannot practice medicine without being vaccinated against hepatitis B.

You have a right not to be vaccinated. But I have a right not have you near me in a restaurant or on a plane.

And of course, it is absolutely right that everybody working on the front line in the NHS and social care should be vaccinated as a condition of employment, as they will be in this country from next April.

As it stands, the unvaccinated are making more restrictions on our lives inevitable. It is time we imposed some on them.

In a free society the unvaccinated have a right not be jabbed. But they need to realise that right comes with consequences, which will inhibit their freedoms as they constrain ours.

One final thought. Singapore has decided that the unvaccinated who end up in hospital with Covid will have to foot their own medical bills.

I doubt we’d ever go that far. But you can see the logic — even the morality — of it.

By all means exercise your rights. But beware of the consequences.

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