AS our vaccination rollout starts, it does so at a time when, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), vaccine hesitancy has never been so high. In 2019, the WHO considered such hesitancy – the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines – as being one of the top ten threats to global health.
Vaccine hesitancy ranges from people being concerned and fearful about a specific vaccination to being philosophically opposed to vaccination in general. Such concerns have been around for decades and it will be a major worry for the authorities in the coming year as we attempt to vaccinate large swathes of the population.
Government cannot insist that everybody must get a vaccination, as this would be an affront to our civil liberties. Instead, it is up to scientists and thought leaders to make the case for our mass vaccination programme and to do so against a backdrop of conspiracy theories which are easily spread on social media.
It is expected that millions of us will get vaccinated, yet some of us will be under more pressure to do so than others. It is likely that private companies will pressurise employees to get a vaccination in order to return to their regular workplaces.
Yet, according to the Health and Safety Authority, employees do not have to accept a vaccination. However, if an employee does refuse, this could seriously damage their job prospects as, at this point in time, companies do not legally have to allow people to work from home.
The same applies for workers employed by the State. It will be up to government departments to make a compelling case for vaccination to ensure that people do not feel pressurised to get it against their will.
As more people are vaccinated, the next hurdle the government faces is what freedoms it will permit. For example, will West Corkonians who have been vaccinated be issued a passport or certificate which will permit travel outside the county and around Ireland, while those without have to stay in some form of lockdown?
Likewise, would passports allow mass gatherings such as music festivals and sporting events to gradually start again?
As for foreign travel, if the government doesn’t issue passports, what would happen if the UK or EU member states did require a form of certificate to gain entry?
A policy on vaccination passports appears to be a vital component of our strategy, but it has yet to be discussed. If the government fails to address this now, it is possible that Ireland will be forced to issue passports in order for people to travel outside the country and in a belated, reactive way.
This would compound the slow rollout of the vaccination programme which is already causing frustration. The hospitality sector has been one of the hardest hit and West Cork restaurant and bar owners are dismayed by the slow progress. They fear that the slow rollout could kill off many businesses if they are not allowed open until mid-summer.
When the population has been fully vaccinated, there will be the understandable feeling that life should return to normal. However, as no vaccination is 100% effective, it will mean that if life does return to normal, there will be a human cost in terms of sickness, hospitalisation, and death.
Therefore, some form of social distancing and health and safety measures will have to be in place. Yet, as the vaccine is being hailed by some as being the ‘cure of all cures’ there will be an understandable desire for every sector to return to normal. Any further measures will be a hard sell and there will be a lot of pushback from vested interests and members of the public alike.
Rolling out the vaccination and managing expectations once the vaccination programme has been delivered is an unprecedented health challenge that no minister of health or Taoiseach has ever faced.
It will require considerable political skill to ensure that there is public acceptance while managing a very fluid set of circumstances. Covid variants could strike at any time which might require national lockdowns or further vaccination programmes.
Seventeen years ago, the then Minister for Health, Micheál Martin, introduced the smoking ban in all workplaces. At the time he faced huge opposition, but now it is considered a farsighted piece of public health policy.
Even if the supply of vaccinations is beyond the government’s control, its messaging has been unclear. Businesses and workers need clarity alike and, to quote one West Cork restauranteur, should ‘be treated like adults’.
The goodwill shown towards the government throughout this pandemic is starting to fade. They are coming under increasing pressure to up their game when it comes to managing the crisis and their communication to the public. Overall, 2021 has got off to a difficult start for Taoiseach Micheál Martin as he faces into the hardest year of his political career.