Last week, Ireland’s Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly, announced that he would be opening discussions with the hospitality sector to introduce a system for restricting indoor hospitality to customers who have been vaccinated against Covid.
There was no public outcry. The government was not widely condemned for proposing to oblige restaurants to engage in systematic discrimination against their unvaccinated customers. There was no heated public debate about customers’ right to keep their private health decisions private.
It would appear that the public conscience has been beaten into submission by a year and a half of shameless, relentless fear-mongering and the normalisation of coercive and illiberal public health measures.
The proposal to restrict access to indoor dining and bars to citizens who can show proof of Covid vaccination is one of the most divisive, illiberal, and discriminatory measures the Irish government has come up with to date.
It is pretty obvious that it will divide the population into two classes: the privileged class of the vaccinated, who can go in and out of bars and restaurants as they please; and a new “under-class” of the unvaccinated, who must stay outside, regardless of the weather, while their vaccinated friends and family get a “VIP” pass to enjoy a drink or a meal inside.
This sort of discrimination is ethically repugnant. What have the unvaccinated done to deserve to be placed in this sort of under-class? It is one thing to turn someone away because they are coughing and sneezing incessantly, but what possible justification could there be for systematically closing the doors of a bar or restaurant to customers who happen to have opted out of the Covid vaccination programme?
Surely this is their moral and legal right? Since when have we decided that vaccination is a strict civic obligation, rather than an optional private choice? Since when have we decided that those who opt out of a vaccine should be treated differently to everyone else?
A domestic vaccine passport system would pressure citizens to accept a vaccine, by depriving them of the opportunity to enjoy a normal social life until such time as they acquiesce and get the jab. This flies in the face of the right to informed consent to medical treatments, one of the pillars of freedom as we understand it in the West.
Implementing vaccine checks at the door of pubs and restaurants would deal a fatal blow to the ideal of an open and inclusive society, in which citizens may freely participate in social life, regardless of their sex, ethnicity, religion, or vaccination status.
Vaccine discrimination is no more ethically acceptable than discrimination based on race, sex, ethnicity, or religion. If Minister Donnelly and his advisors had learned anything from the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements of the twentieth century, it is that a two-tier, class-based society is inconsistent with the ideal of equal respect for all citizens upon which Western societies are founded.
The government would undoubtedly argue that this sort of discrimination, regrettable as it is, is necessary in these extraordinary times. They would argue that it is the only way to make eating and drinking out “safe” for everybody.
There are two responses we could give to this claim: first, even if Covid risk could be offset by excluding the unvaccinated from indoor dining, there are certain lines we should not be willing to cross. Medical apartheid is one of them. Improve ventilation and place capacity limits on dining, if you wish. But don’t force restaurants to turn people away because they’ve conscientiously decided against getting vaccinated.
Second, the claim that vaccine discrimination will make bars and restaurants significantly safer is empirically baseless. No convincing evidence has been provided to support such a claim. There are, in fact, good reasons to believe that it is bogus.
Start with the fact that Covid-19 is a highly age- and health-stratified disease. It overwhelmingly attacks the elderly and those with serious underlying conditions. Most people in these categories have already been vaccinated. Assuming vaccines work to dramatically reduce the risk of severe disease from Covid-19 (and its variants) in the case of the elderly, viral transmission no longer poses any major risk to vulnerable populations.
The risk it poses to young and healthy populations is very small, whether or not they are vaccinated. So there is absolutely no reason for us to keep our pubs and restaurants shut, and certainly no reason to keep out unvaccinated customers.
It has been proposed that customers might be required to undertake antigen tests in order to access indoor dining. This is just another backdoor way of discriminating against the unvaccinated, since presumably the vaccinated would not have to undergo such a test. Requiring Covid tests for entry to a pub or restaurant is completely disproportionate, given the very low risk of severe disease or hospitalisation for those (mostly the young and healthy) not yet vaccinated.
If we look to other regions where indoor hospitality has been opened up a long, long time ago, we do not see higher spikes in hospitalisations in those regions, nor do they perform significantly worse than regions with indoor hospitality shut down. Sweden kept indoor hospitality open throughout the vast majority of the pandemic, yet experienced among the lowest age-adjusted excess mortality levels in Europe, lower than Netherlands, Northern Ireland, France, England, Austria, Spain, Belgium, and Italy, all countries with protracted lockdowns.
Similarly, Florida opened up back in September 2020, while instituting protective measures for its care homes, and ended up with lower age-adjusted excess mortality than many lockdown regions, such as California. Texas opened up completely in early March of this year, and saw no spike in cases or deaths (in fact, they declined).
With all of these data in, the notion that opening indoor hospitality will expose us to a surge of hospitalisations and deaths when most vulnerable are vaccinated is nothing short of absurd.
But clearly, this is not just about science or data. The fact that the government would seriously propose to turn unvaccinated citizens away from pubs and restaurants shows just how far they have descended down the rabbit hole of fear and paranoia, undoubtedly with plenty of encouragement from NPHET. We can only hope that bar and restaurant owners will have the courage and integrity to tell the government that they will have no hand or part in this nefarious scheme.