How a court ruling lays the ground for mandatory COVID-19 vaccination
(Euro News) – Delays in deliveries, production bottlenecks, exports control, vaccine hesitancy and public feuds with pharmaceutical companies have muddled the first months of Europe’s vaccination campaign against COVID-19.
But now, as supplies improve and national systems speed up inoculations, a landmark ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) can offer an additional and much-needed boost.
The ECHR ruled last week that compulsory vaccination can be considered “necessary in a democratic society”.
The verdict came in a case involving several families from the Czech Republic whose children had been refused admission to school because they had not been fully vaccinated against a panel of nine diseases, including poliomyelitis, hepatitis B and tetanus. A parent was fined for the failure to comply.
“Thus, where the view was taken that a policy of voluntary vaccination was not sufficient to achieve and maintain herd immunity, the national authorities could reasonably introduce a compulsory vaccination policy in order to achieve an appropriate level of protection against serious diseases,” the court noted in regards to the Czech health policies.
The case revolved around Article 8 of the Convention, which establishes the “right to respect for private and family life” and the corresponding “no interference from public authorities”. The text, however, opens the door for several exceptions, such as interests of “public safety” and “the protection of health or morals” – provisions that the court invoked in its ruling.
The ruling was decided by the ECHR’s Grand Chamber, which makes it final and prevents the applicants from appealing any further.
While the events surrounding the case took place well before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the judgment is poised to set a legal precedent and serve as a reference in the ongoing debate on whether COVID-19 vaccination should be made compulsory.
“The outcome of this case is important for all European countries,” Antoine Buyse, professor of human rights at the University of Utrecht, told Euronews. “Any future similar cases would be decided in the same way.
“The implications for the case are basically that when states operate vaccination programmes, they have to weigh the different interests: not just the interests of the individual who maybe doesn’t want to be vaccinated, but also the wider interests of other people who might become protected by a high vaccination rate,” explained Professor Buyse, who is also director of the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights (SIM).
Throughout the ruling, the ECHR speaks about the “vaccination duty” to protect against contagious diseases which “could pose a serious risk to health”, a characterisation that Prof Buyse believes would immediately apply to COVID-19.
The unambiguous language of the verdict could help countries deal with the anti-vax movement and vaccine hesitancy, which is often fueled by disinformation and anti-establishment parties.
“In general, we can say that the court gives a lot of weight to scientific medical evidence. It basically says states should take [vaccination] very seriously and base our decisions on scientific evidence,” Prof Buyse adds, pointing out that it’s not a coincidence that the ECHR decided to issue this judgement at this particular juncture.
“And on the other side of the equation, just being critical or suspicious of new vaccinations is not enough for a person to say ‘I don’t want any vaccination at all’ if a state has wider public health reasons to make vaccination mandatory.”