People wait outside The GoodSamaritan Inn vaccinationcentre in Kingston to get theirCOVID-19 vaccine in thisJamaica Observer file photo.
Tufton: There will come a point when Government has to consider measures used by other countries

THERE are indications that the Government could at some point take a decision to implement policy or legislation to get Jamaicans vaccinated against COVID-19 as it pushes to have approximately two million people inoculated against the disease by March next year.

But senior attorney Bert Samuels says, although the Government could make an argument for public health and safety, it could face serious challenge from individuals who are against being vaccinated should it take this route.

The first hint that the Government could be considering this approach came from Health and Wellness Minister Dr Christopher Tufton yesterday at a meeting of the joint select committee of Parliament with responsibility for management of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Dr Tufton said it is anticipated that, even as the numbers of people who take up the vaccine increase, there will be greater levels of hesitancy, hindering the Government's vaccination target.

Health authorities anticipate that some 1.4 million more doses of COVID-19 vaccines will become available over the next three months, with an expected take-up of some 950,000 doses or about half of the target population.

Dr Tufton said there will come a point when the Government has to consider measures used by other countries, noting France, where there has been pushback against the new requirement for proof of COVID-19 vaccination to enter restaurants, cafés, restaurants, and other public facilities.

He said, in countries where vaccination levels are high but not sufficient based on the policies of those governments, other measures are being deployed, including policy around access to work, access to certain facilities, and legislation requiring people of a particular age to be vaccinated.

“There is going to come a point when we will have to give some consideration for some of those measures, because the policy around [vaccination] as the most effective response to COVID has to be considered as a greater good for the population. To opt out of that response, as an individual decision, may be a choice you make, but if it is going to impact the general population then Government, as well as employers and others, may have to give serious consideration for stronger measures,” the minister argued.

But Samuels warned that the Government would have to tread very carefully with any form of mandatory vaccination.

“There have been challenges to take body fluids forcibly from accused persons, now this is going in another direction, because here it is these are not persons accused of anything and we would be forcibly putting substances in their bodies. It's one thing to take my saliva, blood, [or] semen, and its another thing to put something extraneous into my body,” he stated.

He said what the Government has indicated that it could propose to do may fit under Section 13 of the constitution, subsection 1(c), which speaks to the enjoyment of freedoms to the extent that they do not prejudice the rights and freedoms of others.

“An interpretation of that could be: 'Though I have the right and freedom not to be vaccinated, if that right will cause the spread of an infectious disease by me to others, then the Government may say that's the limb on which they could do it,' ” he said.

However, the attorney-at-law said this would be very difficult, as some people are of the belief, scientifically backed or not, that the dangers of the vaccine outstrips the benefits.

“It seems to me, if the Government embarks on forcible vaccinations it's going to be challenged, it's going to be a balancing act between public health and individual rights and freedom of choice,” he argued.

Samuels further noted that under Section 14 of the Jamaican Constitution a person can be detained for the prevention of the spreading of an infectious or contagious disease, posing a serious threat to public health.

“The way I see this happening is that if the vaccination is offered to you, you refuse to take the vaccine and are detained, that detention would be preventing spreading of an infection or contagious disease…[I]f the Government can prove by scientific evidence that you pose a threat to the rest of the community they may be able to detain you until you take your vaccine, and then the civil liberties and the people who deal with freedom of choice are going to pose serious constitutional challenges for this,” he said.

Tufton stressed to the committee that once vaccinations reach one million people the level of hesitancy anticipated will require new strategies. He noted, however, that Jamaica is not at that point yet, and the authorities would therefore continue to use moral suasion and efficient management of logistics for vaccination.

“Once we have the vaccines, take it to the people, as opposed to the people coming to it, and also use key influencers to help the populace understand the importance of the measures. It's a phased approach. [But] what we need right now are the vaccines,” he told the committee.

Jamaica has received 315,680 doses of COVID-19 vaccines so far, with 119,424 people now fully vaccinated, and 58,400 having received their first dose. However, over 93 per cent of the population remains unvaccinated.

Up to July 19 the country recorded 51,282 cumulative cases as of the novel coronavirus and 1,158 deaths from the disease. Some 46,316 people who contracted the virus have recovered. Government statistics show that 20-year-olds to 30-year-olds account for the most cases, and that deaths are highest among people over the age of 40.

BY ALPHEA SAUNDERS Senior staff reporter saundersa@jamaicaobserver.com

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