Our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us.” Joe Biden’s message to America’s army of unvaccinated citizens was stark. And he backed his tough words with actions. Vaccines are being mandated for healthcare workers, federal contractors and the vast majority of US federal government workers.
They could face disciplinary measures if they refuse and the hard line extends into the private sector. All companies with more than 100 workers are going to have to require vaccination or institute weekly testing.
The UK’s response looks tepid by comparison. A six-week consultation was announced on Thursday over a similar mandate for frontline healthcare workers. Those who fail to comply could face redeployment. There is already one in place in social care with deadlines looming.
However, it should also be said that the UK’s vaccination rate is appreciably higher. According to government statistics, 88.9 per cent of eligible Britons have had their first dose. Some 80.4 per cent of us are fully vaccinated.
In the US, figures from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention show that just 73 per cent of eligible Americans have received a first dose while 63 per cent are fully covered.
We are not comparing like with like here, given that Americans aged 12 and up are able to receive shots whereas in Britain, it is 16-plus. But it’s safe to say that the refusal rate is considerably higher across the Atlantic, especially in southern states where the “pandemic of the unvaccinated” is at its worst and hospitals are being overrun.
This explains Biden’s urgency, and his willingness to stare down critics, which include some erstwhile allies in unions, as well as his nation’s loopy conservatives. His moves will surely be made subject to legal challenge. But experts think he’ll win.
The UK’s much more limited squeeze on the unvaccinated is creating rumblings of discontent too. Frances O’Grady, the director general of the TUC, spoke to me this week of her discomfiture with the “bullying” of minorities, who have good reason to feel mistrustful of a government that frequently mistreats them and is led by a man who infamously penned racist newspaper columns in a former life.
O’Grady, and other unions I’ve talked to in this country, are steadfastly pro-vaccine but stress the virtues of persuasion over compulsion. And persuasion is indeed better.
But what happens when persuasion fails? Whose rights take precedence? Those refusing to take a safe and effective vaccine? Or those being put at risk from a killer disease as a result of the choice of the unvaccinated?
I feel a certain queasiness about mandating a health procedure (masks are a different matter). I understand the unhappiness of unions both in the US and the UK.
Unison has spoken eloquently on behalf of care workers, noting that there is already a staffing crisis in that sector which this may exacerbate. Mandatory vaccines would be a lot more palatable if some of the sector’s employers paid staff better and treated them with a great deal more respect than they do at present. When people talk about the social care crisis, they rarely mention the issues facing its workforce.
And yet, as someone classified as clinically vulnerable, I find myself more and more inclined towards Biden’s view. My life is potentially at risk from encountering a new variant of the virus through type 1 autoimmune diabetes, if it cuts through my AstraZeneca shield (I’ve already had the original). I have friends and loved ones with suppressed immune systems. They are at even greater risk.
The vaccines are not perfect. Breakthrough infections are possible. Breakthrough hospitalisations are also possible. The unvaccinated are the most likely sources of them.
The rights and needs of people with disabilities and health conditions, on whom the virus has taken its greatest toll, have been largely ignored throughout the pandemic. We’ve been left on our own. Britain is reopening but many people are still left asking themselves if they are safe to go and see a movie, have a meal or go out for a drink with friends. Or if they may be putting their loved ones at risk if they do so. This is terribly unfair.
There are various official figures for the number of Britons who have died from Covid. The most commonly quoted is 133,841, which is the number of deaths within 28 days of a positive test. I think the better figure is 156,888, referring to the number of fatalities with Covid-19 on the death certificate. The latter is roughly equivalent to the entire population of Swindon, or of Reading, or of Mansfield.
The actual number claimed by the virus is probably a fair bit higher than either. Not all of them have disabilities or health conditions. But more than half of them do. By any estimation those numbers are horrible. The flip side is that the government estimates 100,000 people have been saved as a direct result of the vaccination campaign.
I’m heartily sick of feeling fear. I want to see the latter number increasing and the former number kept as low as possible. So, much as it offends my liberal instincts and as uncomfortable as it makes me feel, my sympathies are with Biden. My patience too is wearing thin.
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