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Is it fair for European countries to single out the unvaccinated?

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By Lauren Chadwick
A demonstrator holds a placard reading 'Against compulsory vaccination' during an anti-vaccination protest at the Ballhausplatz in Vienna, Austria
A demonstrator holds a placard reading 'Against compulsory vaccination' during an anti-vaccination protest at the Ballhausplatz in Vienna, Austria   -   Copyright  Credit: AFP

With COVID-19 cases soaring in Europe, governments are again resorting to stricter measures to curb infections and protect hospitals.

But this time, it's different. Before, whole populations were locked down. Now, some countries are targeting only the unvaccinated.

Some, such as France and Italy have restricted access to bars, restaurants and public places to those that have been vaccinated, have recently recovered from the disease or tested negative. In some countries, this is the so-called 3G rule.

Others have gone further. Germany's 2G rule means that even those testing negative are excluded from some public places.

After protests in several European countries over the weekend, we look at whether targeting the unvaccinated is justified.

'Prevent harm to others'

“We don't want the government to judge for us what the best way of life is, we don't want it to impose one particular view about the right way to live. But in this case, there are scientific facts which are well established,” argues Simon Rippon, an associate professor of philosophy at the Central European University in Austria.

“What's happening is that governments are taking measures to restrict some people from imposing physical risks on others because they choose not to take a precaution that's scientifically well-supported.”

Rippon added that renowned British philosopher John Stuart Mill argued in his essay On Liberty that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others".

He said there are many instances where the government has had to restrict people's freedoms.

“You can't drive without a licence or drive drunk, even if you think a couple of drinks will do no harm or even help you drive better. You can't smoke at work, you can't carry a gun in lots of places in the world, even if you would feel safer with one,” Rippon added.

“The government often has to restrict our freedoms to protect others from risk, and I think that restrictions on the unvaccinated and COVID passports are similar to these existing restrictions in many ways.”

In Austria, the chancellor pointed out that there was a higher incidence rate of COVID-19 cases in the population of the unvaccinated.

Last Monday, the country introduced a lockdown for the unvaccinated. On Friday, it was extended to the whole population.

"It's very clear that even strong measures like widespread testing and green passes are not strong enough in the situation that we're in," Rippon said.

“We do know that vaccination obviously prevents some infection (and) is better at preventing hospitalisation and deaths, although that still does occur. We know that the amount of virus that is being produced when vaccinated people get infected tends to be quite high initially,” explains Rowland Kao, the chair of veterinary epidemiology and data science at the University of Edinburgh.

“But what happens is that people tend to clear it faster. So you get initially the same amount of virus or pretty close to it, then it seems to drop away fast."

Kao explained that the expectation is that while vaccinated people do transmit the virus, the vaccine does block infection and thus has an effect on transmission.

The Czech Republic, which instituted a rule that prevents unvaccinated people from accessing public life, even with a PCR test, defended the move as necessary.

"We believe that the epidemic is not spreading due to the vaccinated. This does not mean that they cannot become infected, but the vaccinated do not fill hospitals," said health minister Adam Vojtěch in a statement.

'Draconian measure'

Many experts say however that 2G passes -- where the unvaccinated are prevented from joining in public life -- are more difficult to justify than 3G ones, which are open to those without a jab if they test negative for the virus.

“They might need to be tested once or twice or three times a week, but at least if they do the test, they can still participate in social life,” explains Roland Pierik, an associate professor of legal philosophy at the University of Amsterdam Law School.

“If you go to 2G then you exclude unvaccinated persons from specific elements of social life.”

Pierik argues that one of the problems in the Netherlands is that the “3G” or COVID-19 pass was not very strictly enforced, with many bars and restaurants ignoring the measure. The government has proposed having a 2G pass in high-risk contexts.

“That also makes me quite reluctant to now accept (the possibility of) 2G because it is a much stronger interference with the freedoms of unvaccinated persons and might be even more difficult to enforce.”

Dr Kao says indeed a 2G rule would be a "very draconian step... it's the type of venue which you would only do if you were sure that the risks of that, the risks of the pandemic itself are greater."

In a recent op-ed for Euronews, experts Tom Theuns and Josette Daemen argue that a measure in Latvia to restrict unvaccinated MPs access to parliament is a form of "democratic backsliding".

“The final decision that was taken... excluded MPs also from remote meetings, which for me really shows the policy was not about public health," Theuns, at the Institute for Political Science at Leiden University, told Euronews.

But he says that the 3G rule is likely a reasonable trade-off for a democratic society if it means people can resume economic and cultural activity.

A 2G rule, on the other hand, would be "dividing society into two and saying those who are vaccinated, they get special rights, whereas the unvaccinated get excluded from services and goods, which would otherwise be accessible," Theuns said.

A recent letter published in The Lancet by Günter Kampf at the University Medical Centre in Greifswald, Germany, argues that high-level officials should stop saying it is "a pandemic of the unvaccinated" as it is "stigmatising".

"There is increasing evidence that vaccinated individuals continue to have a relevant role in transmission," Kampf said.

What about vaccine mandates?

Some experts say that mandating vaccines for the population, as Austria announced it will do from February, is both an equaliser and an imposition.

Several vaccines are already obligatory for children and travel in many countries.

"Mandatory vaccine policies for children are more easily justified because you have to work in the best interests of the children who cannot make a well-considered decision on the risk of non-vaccination themselves," says Pierik.

"With adults, it's different because they are beyond the age of reason and he or she can make choices for themselves unlike children, and it makes it hard to justify a mandatory policy."

Theuns adds that on the one hand, mandatory vaccination would mean "everyone is treated equally, which I think this kind of political equality and civic equality is an important value in democracy".

"But there are people who feel very strongly the other end of things. And mandating them to get vaccinated is a kind of imposition on people that would require a very high threshold of justification."

Every weekday at 1900 CET, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get an alert for this and other breaking news. It's available on Apple and Android devices.