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COVID-19 vaccination should not encroach on civil liberties

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While vaccination against COVID-19 is not compulsory, the Government is still finding ways to restrict civil liberties (Screenshot via YouTube)

As we hopefully come out of the COVID-19 crisis, we need to make sure that the measures put in place do not become permanent nor have a permanent effect on our system of liberties.

From the beginning, the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties (QCCL) has accepted the medical opinion about the dangerousness of the coronavirus and consequently that a state of emergency designed to protect society from that virus can be justified.

In the context of a contagious disease, the population represents a single biomass and the concept of “the individual” breaks down to a certain extent. However, even in this context, it is necessary that the powers and actions taken by the Government to deal with the emergency must be time limited and strictly necessary, proportionate and a fair response to the emergency.

In this context, the concepts of proportionality and fairness require decision-makers to take into account issues beyond the medical science, including normative issues, inequality, justice, privacy and the other basic interests and fundamental rights of Queenslanders.

The Council is extremely concerned by the prospect that should these new rules continue for a significant period of time, both the rulers and the ruled will become enured to these restrictions of basic rights and liberties. We are concerned the effect of that will be, one way or another, the rules will continue after the emergency passes.

Alternatively, people would have become so used to such restrictions that when calls are made for them to be introduced for some other purpose in the future which is not an emergency, citizens will accept them on the basis that they have lived with them during the COVID-19 crisis.

Pandemics must be treated foremost as public health problems, not as law enforcement matters. Victims and possible victims of disease must be treated as human beings who need help, not enemies. Expert opinion supports the view that mandatory restrictions such as quarantines and travel bans can be effective only under specific circumstances. Treating sick or possibly sick people like enemies is counterproductive because it drives them underground and makes them avoid seeking diagnosis and treatment.

The roll-out of vaccines brings all these issues into focus.

The Government has correctly determined that vaccines should not be compulsory. Making the vaccines compulsory would not only be a violation of the right to bodily integrity, it is likely to result in increased resistance to vaccination.

However, talk of Australians being required to prove they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 to access basic services is inconsistent with this policy. Vaccination is no longer voluntary if you can’t go to the supermarket without being able to prove that you have been vaccinated. The Government should take steps to prevent that type of action by private and public bodies.

In addition, such a blanket requirement could breach the Disability Discrimination Act and equivalent provisions in the State Anti-Discrimination Act.

Secondly, it could create a two-level society — those who have been vaccinated and those who have not.

Thirdly, there is a real risk that the creation of any form of immunity passport could pave the way for a national or even global identity system. An idea that must be rejected by any society that wants to protect its basic rights.

Once being vaccinated becomes a requirement, others will need to verify the record and that's when it becomes an identity document. Once you have to use it to access services in the public and private sectors in multiple countries (travel, for example), then we are approaching a global identity document needed for you to be able to live.

Having said that, in contexts where an identity scheme is already in place, such as passports for international travel, verifying a vaccination requirement may be acceptable in relation to places where there is free and universal access to effective vaccines.

If such a requirement were not limited in that way, it could split Australians from family members overseas. Such people need to have the option to quarantine on arrival and should be given the option of vaccination.

We know that identity systems exclude people, with individuals and communities unable to access services; this exclusion will be compounded by exclusion from vaccination schemes.

I note that the Government has now introduced the Check In app which stores data about those visiting places like restaurants into computers in the United States. Many venues seem to be offering no alternative to the use of this app. Whilst the Government says the data will not be accessed for non-COVID-19 purposes and be deleted after 56 days, this has not been legislated for.

We know from the practice of police accessing Go Card data some years ago to make it easier to serve subpoenas that the protections of the Information Privacy Act are inadequate. The Government should introduce specific legislation to secure the privacy of Queenslanders in relation to Check In app data.

The restrictions on civil liberties we have endured during the pandemic have been justified on the basis that they are needed to protect our hospital system. To date, all vaccines that have passed phase three trials prevent serious illness and death and a number are proven to do so against all strains of COVID-19. While that continues to be the case, once all who want to be vaccinated have been, there is no justification for continuing restrictions on civil liberties.

In 2019, 902 people died of the flu and 3,915 were hospitalised in this country. Those figures would no doubt be worse without a vaccine. But they are not used to justify vaccine passports and large scale civil liberties restrictions. Effective vaccines for COVID-19 must have the same consequence.

Find out more about the QCCL here. Follow Michael Cope on Twitter @michaelcope64.

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