With 90.42% of Australians aged 16 and over being double vaccinated as of today and the omicron variant surging, many of us are recalibrating how we should run our lives over the next months.  In my family’s case, a fully vaxed daughter-in-law is being torn in half about whether she should use the ticket she’s bought to fly home to see her 80 year old father after 5 years. What if she picks it up in transit and gives it to him? What if Australia closes our borders with the UK and she can’t return home for many months to her young family and job?

We’re triple vaxed, but across the next month have a theatre ticket, two indoor Sydney Festival concerts, three dinner invitations and a Christmas lunch where there will be nine booster-vaxed adults and two unvaccinated primary school kids.

We’ve all agreed to do rapid antigen tests on Christmas morning, but at $15 a pop, this is unlikely to be an option taken up many on low incomes. But what about the rest of our plans while it’s surging? I’m having lots of conversations with people who have decided to personally lock down, not going out to public venues to eat or drink. If this is a widespread sentiment, many businesses will again suffer further and some may close for good.

With NSW and Victoria now seeing record new daily diagnoses, even small fractions of these needing hospital and intensive care may see health care workers in ambulances and hospitals face potential bursting point admissions, at a time when there are staff shortages. This viral tweet from yesterday sums up the ethical pointy end of it:

There is no debating that those who are unvaccinated are at much higher risk of acquiring COVID-19 and therefore of passing it to others, both unvaccinated and vaccinated (because no vaccine confers 100% immunity to all and the dynamics of the omicron variant’s infectious footprint is still far from being understood). An unvaccinated person is around 20 times more likely to infect you than someone who is vaccinated, according to University of Melbourne modellers.

Every expert, and all but the most demented of our politicians, continually implore those who are not yet vaxed to get jabbed. So it’s here that we get to questions of what should be done about all those who continually refuse, sometimes very vocally, to do so. And some of these questions throw up some seriously naïve suggestions.

I’ve heard some commentators talk about how we need “to try to better understand where vaccine refusers are coming from”, presumably so that we can “reach out” to them. There are many stories about a confused uncle who went and got vaxed after a fundamental misconception was patiently explained to them, or reclusive neighbour who just needed a nurse to come to them.  Vaccine hesitancy may well erode with careful, respectful and sensitive communication often to people who are poorly informed about what vaccination is and how it works. But vaccine refusal is a different beast altogether.

Reaching out …

93.8% of Australians have had at least one jab. This means there are 1.274m Australians aged 16 and over who have still not had a single shot. Clearly there are large number of these who are determined people, proud of refusing to be vaxed, who do not believe they pose a danger to the community and will resist any attempt at being persuaded to do so.

Civil societies make many laws and regulations to protect people, businesses and corporations from conduct that poses serious risks to others. Road rules; food and pharmaceutical safety; and vehicle, occupational health, building, and consumer product safety standards are some of the areas where many rules govern individual and business behaviours. Here’s a list I complied in 2013 of 150 ways that health laws and regulations protect a population’s health.

Examples of zero tolerance for those who endanger lives

We have zero tolerance for those who say “I know I can drive perfectly well, when I’m over the blood alcohol limit” or “I know I pose no risk at all to anyone by having banned semi-automatic firearms in my house. I don’t believe in gun laws”, “I don’t believe in the nanny state, so I won’t comply with a fence around my swimming pool” or “Allowing the sewage from my caravan park or toxic waste from my factory to drain into a nearby river is fine … it’s a very big river”. We do not decide that we should all be comfortable with those who tell us they have studied the risks and are making informed decisions here. Instead, we see them as self-absorbed dangers to the community who fully deserve the harsh penalties they often get.

So by what bizarre public ethics reasoning do we even begin to argue that we should accommodate those who want to live and freely move around unvaccinated and unmasked in communities and have the gall to argue that we should all feel fine about them putting the rest of us at risk, ruining businesses etc? And let’s say it, being vectors for spreading a disease which has so far killed 5.34 million.

Reintroduction of threats of being refused entry to cinemas, restaurants, pubs and shopping malls today will not persuade any vaccine refuser. We have all by now experienced perfunctory or totally absent verification of vaccination status at many such venues. I have shown my vaccine certificate many times and not once did anyone ever read it carefully or ask me to show photo ID to confirm that the certificate I flashed was actually mine. And that’s before we even get to questions about how anyone with rudimentary computer skills could knock up a fake certificate, screen shot it, and show it whenever asked.

Here’s what other nations are doing. Germany is shaping to make it compulsory. Greece is fining those each month who refuse. The vaccination status and address of every Australian with a Medicare card is known. The government can therefore pinpoint with great accuracy all those who are unvaccinated. Persuasion under threat of significant fines can be precisely targeted. Those with verifiable health exemptions and who were only hesitant out of confusion and willing to get vaccinated, would be OK. But ideological refusers can wear their convictions with movement restrictions and fines, just like others who decide to endanger us all do.

Scott Morrison says that he wants COVID restrictions banished to “give us back our freedoms”. Zero tolerance for refusing vaccination would do just that.

Former NSW Premier and Labor Foreign Minister Bob Carr has urged the government to follow Singapore’s lead by charging unvaccinated people for any COVID19 related health care. Scott Morrison, in words that would be cheered at any QAnon anti-vax rally, commented that anti-vaxers should not be demonised for making “their own choices”.

The next time a drunk driver slams into pedestrians, let’s see how that defence goes down in court.