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NPHET to discuss mandatory vaccination, but Taoiseach says voluntary policy will be kept

The issue is to be discussed after the Department of Health prepares a legal and ethical paper on vaccine mandates.

File photo of a Covid vaccine passport for Glasgow, Scotland.
File photo of a Covid vaccine passport for Glasgow, Scotland.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Jan 10th 2022, 5:00 PM

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has said Ireland’s voluntary vaccination system will be maintained after it emerged public health experts are exploring a mandatory system.

His comments came after minutes from a meeting of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) revealed the issue is under discussion.

The issue is to be discussed after the Department of Health prepares a legal and ethical paper.

Minutes of NPHET’s meeting from 16 December, published on Friday, said:

“It was noted that the NPHET will discuss the issue of mandatory vaccination at a later date and this discussion will be facilitated by a forthcoming paper from the Department of Health on the relevant ethical and legal considerations pertaining to this topic.”

Speaking from Cork today, the Taoiseach said: “I think NPHET will examine every issue, so it can give advice to Government from time to time.

“I’ve been very clear that I favour the voluntary approach to vaccination.

“We’ve done extraordinarily well as a country in terms of a 94%vaccination rate for the first and second dose and even 63% for the booster.

“We’re top of the European Union league table in terms of the booster campaign.

“I think that speaks volumes for informing the public about the benefits of vaccination, and also the robust debate that has taken place, with strong medical and public health contributions.

“Not just those in officialdom, but those in the academic world, those involved in the medicine world, who have been very, very clear about the value of vaccination.”

Martin said that vaccination had played a huge role in Ireland’s Covid-19 response, and that without it, the country would currently be in a level five lockdown with infection rates at over 20,000 cases a day.

“Vaccination is the big game changer here. So I favour the voluntary,” he said. 

“I fully respect people who will obviously explore all issues and research them and so on.

“But from my perspective, we have achieved one of the highest rates in the world through a voluntary system and that’s the system that we will maintain.”

Professor Karina Butler, chair of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC), however, has said mandatory vaccination could be “necessary for the overall good”. 

She said the controversial measure would have to be given “careful consideration.”

“I think this is something that really has to be thought about. There are pros and cons to mandatory vaccination,” Professor Butler told RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne today.

“I know this has been looked at by the Department and a paper is being done on that and careful consideration will be given to it,” she said. 

“It’s always preferable if people can look at vaccinations, have the information, and be able to make informed decisions for themselves and get it.

“But there can be situations where making a vaccine a requirement is necessary for the overall good.

“But that’s being looked at at the moment.”

Earlier today, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said she is “puzzled” by the news of NPHET discussing mandatory vaccinations.

“I mean, we have a huge level of take up of vaccination, including booster shots,” McDonald told RTÉ’s News at One. 

“I don’t believe that mandatory vaccination is a good idea. I think it’s a path that we should not walk down,” she said. 

“People have demonstrated that they are very thoughtful, very responsible in terms of keeping themselves, their families and their communities safe,” she added. 

“I don’t think you will win people to the desirability of vaccinations by making it compulsory.”

Vaccination

Ireland has vaccinated over 92% of people aged over 12, and over 2.3 million booster doses have been administered to date.

According to NPHET’s December minutes, of the 1,272 Covid-19 cases (aged 12 and over) in November who were hospitalised and where vaccination status is known, 281 were unvaccinated (22%) and 956 were fully vaccinated (75%).

Chief Clinical Officer of the HSE Dr Colm Henry said that while just 5% of the eligible population are unvaccinated, over half of patients admitted to ICUs are unvaccinated.

There are just under 1,000 people hospitalised with Covid-19 currently.

Omicron

Hospitals in Ireland are grappling with a surge in Covid-19 cases this winter due to the Omicron variant, which is estimated to be at least five times more transmissible than the previous dominant Covid variant, Delta.

This has led to a series of record-breaking daily cases being reported each day, with 25% of Ireland’s total cases for the past 12 months being reported since Christmas Day.

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Despite this, the variant is thought to be less likely to progress to more severe illness by affecting the person’s lungs – it’s more likely to affect a person’s nose and throat. But if it does travel down to the lungs, it is just as likely to cause severe illness as previous variants of Covid-19.

Vaccine mandates

Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron made headlines for saying that he would “emmerde”, roughly translated as pledging to annoy the unvaccinated with new rules that means they will need to prove they are fully vaccinated before they can eat out, use trains, or attend cultural events.

In Austria, vaccination is to be obligatory from February for all residents older than 14, except in the case of a dispensation for health reasons.

This has prompted protests – larger than previous Covid-related protests – in both countries in recent weeks.

In December, the Czech Republic is making Covid vaccines mandatory for people aged 60 and above from 1 March, as it battles one of the highest infection rates in the world; while Germany’s parliament passed a draft law requiring healthcare workers and soldiers to get vaccinated against Covid-19, which is considered a first step toward possible mandatory jabs for all adults.

Ecuador made coronavirus vaccines mandatory for children as young as five, after the the Omicron variant was confirmed in the country. Around 69% of Ecuador’s population is considered fully vaccinated. 

With reporting from Hayley Halpin, AFP and Press Association.

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