One outcome of the drive to get New Zealanders protected against Covid-19 is the recurring question over mandatory vaccination.
Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson was asked again about it this week and responded: "The idea that we would go to a compulsory vaccination goes, I think, well beyond where New Zealand has ever been in this regard."
Robertson is quite right, it would be out of step with how we have responded to the pandemic. It is also, one hopes, out of line with how we see ourselves as New Zealanders.
Much of the approach to Covid-19 prevention has been based on a "trust model". Precautionary advice has been issued and people invited to comply. When the trust is broken, consequences are sometimes necessary. But that should not bring forced compliance on all as a result.
There are already situations where, out of necessity, vaccinations are demanded. The Covid-19 Public Health Response (Vaccinations) Order 2021 issued in August prevents people from certain frontline work unless they are vaccinated.
Even this order is subject to query and is being challenged in the High Court by a Customs worker who was dismissed from her job for refusing to get vaccinated. A lawyer acting for the sacked worker said mandatory vaccination was never an intention of the order.
Vaccinations have been rolled out in New Zealand's past through schools where the clear expectation was that all children would comply. Schools still ask new enrolments to provide proof of vaccination against up to a dozen serious diseases, including measles, mumps and rubella. While schools are required to keep an up-to-date vaccination register, parents and guardians are still able to opt out.
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A Public Health Response Order could be issued to mandate vaccinating New Zealand but a big legal question hanging over that would be the genuine risk. The Bill of Rights Act in New Zealand doesn't have the status to override such orders but New Zealand expects its government to act in accordance with the Bill of Rights. To do otherwise would require evidence of the need.
Even under the current Public Health (Vaccinations) Response Order, the Minister of Health still must be satisfied that the order does not limit, or is a justified limit, on the rights and freedoms in the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.
The call for mandatory vaccination is understandable. The fewer who take the vaccine, the greater the potential burden on all of us. But any action by force only risks engendering greater resistance. Italian prime minister Mario Draghi suggested his government could make Covid-19 vaccines mandatory and was met with a rise in protests and violence from anti-vaxxers.
Indonesia is an exception and announced mandatory vaccination in February, with potential hefty fines for those who do not comply. But we are not Italy or Indonesia. Mandatory application of Covid vaccines across the domestic New Zealand setting would render ourselves unrecognisable to our predecessors.
Vaccination is strongly advised. The more who do, the better our chances of getting back to being the kind of country we want to be - a country where the majority trust each other to do the right thing.
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