When COVID vaccines were first developed, authorities stressed they would be voluntary.
Now several governments in Europe are seriously considering making the jab mandatory for all eligible adults as cases continue to skyrocket into winter.
In Austria, unvaccinated adults would receive two warnings before being slapped with a €3600 ($5800) fine, which could also be issued a second time if need be.
In Germany, outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel and her successor, Olaf Scholz, backed a proposed vaccine mandate which could come into play next year, while Greece is considering making COVID vaccines mandatory for people over 60, with a recurring monthly fine of €100 ($160).
“Fining people is a very European thing,” Associate Professor Katie Attwell, a vaccine mandate expert from the University of Western Australia, told The New Daily.
“France and Italy have both got histories of fining parents who were not fully up to date with their vaccines, in addition to other measures like exclusion from school or child care.”
However in Australia – one of just a handful of countries where voting is mandatory – mandatory COVID vaccinations are not on the cards.
“That is not the government’s policy, that is not how Australia has successfully run vaccination programs in the past,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said back in August.
Only workers in certain sectors such as health care are required to be vaccinated as part of their jobs, and this is enforced at a state level rather than a federal level.
Associate Professor Attwell has been researching vaccine mandates long before the pandemic started, and says fines for the unjabbed a “clunky” solution that could create serious backlash.
In many of these European countries, unvaccinated adults have recently been banned from hospitality and non-essential retail – something that has already been enforced for months in parts of Australia.
While anti-vaxxers and fringe politicians might decry a supposed vaccine mandate in Australia, the situation on the ground is vastly different to that in Europe.
“Things are good here,” Deakin University chair in epidemiology Professor Catherine Bennett told TND.
Although Australia’s vaccine rollout got off to a slow start, vaccine coverage is now significantly higher than in many European countries.
Professor Bennett said vaccine mandates are “a last resort” for when the situation is dire.
“I do think [the proposed vaccine mandate] shows their level of concern with the number of cases,” Professor Bennett said.
In Australia, on the other hand, enough people were jabbed willingly and so coverage is already quite high.
There’s also a chance the relatively few stragglers in Australia who don’t get vaccinated will end up contracting COVID-19 and will thus have a natural immunity by the time they’re allowed back into most venues.
The risk of fallout
Professor Bennett said that while the post-lockdown freedoms may have been an incentive for some, the uptake among young teenagers was high even before they became subject to the same rules, which demonstrates that Australians were genuinely eager to get jabbed.
Forcing people to do so could prove less effective.
“All of a sudden, if it’s mandated, you get a bit more resentment and you might not actually change your final number,” she said.
Associate Professor Attwell noted that punitive measures, such as fining unvaccinated adults, do little to address the root of the problem.
She pointed to smaller fines for previous vaccines in Europe, which generated only a small amount of revenue for the government and were tricky to enforce.
In many cases, a fine will do little to convince a wealthy person, while it could seriously harm marginalised people who can’t afford to pay up.
“I just think we only have to look at Indigenous deaths in custody in this country, and trivial things that people have done to warrant being in custody, to say that fines disproportionately affect the poor,” Associate Professor Attwell said.
The Omicron factor
The sudden emergence of the Omicron variant has put the outlook for next year into question, but experts hope existing vaccines – and the booster shot timeline – will be enough to deal with it.
Although very early reports point to Omicron having milder symptoms, it’s not going to be the last mutation.
“What Omicron shows is that we’re not going to get to become complacent about this,” Associate Professor Attwell said.
“There are going to be these curveballs, and I think it will prompt the policymakers to really try their very best to ensure that the public is as fully vaccinated as possible.”