If you think public health authorities in England are overbearing, spare a thought for the Czechs. Parents who fail to have children vaccinated face being fined or having their offspring excluded from nurseries. Now, in a landmark ruling, the European Court of Human Rights, has backed that policy. But even critics aghast at the thought of compulsory vaccinations should welcome the court’s verdict. Why? Because human rights judges should not be butting in here.
The Czech law bends over backwards to accommodate welfare concerns: vaccinations are free; there are exceptions for good medical reasons; and any vaccine-generated injury is automatically compensated. Yet it was still an obvious target for human rights challenge on individualist grounds.
An indignant gentleman called Pavel Vavřička, who objected on principle to being ordered to expose his children to what he saw as unjustifiable risks and punished when he refused, duly obliged. He complained in Strasbourg that the law infringed his rights to a private life and to freedom of thought and conscience. He was joined in these complaints by a number of younger people who had been excluded from various pre-school establishments as a result of not being properly immunised.
Faced with a straight fight between the pretensions of public health technocracy and the feelings of a sceptical individual, the Human Rights Court unhesitatingly backed the former. True, fining someone for not getting a child vaccinated, and refusing an unvaccinated child entrance to a school, interfered with private life.
But it served a legitimate aim, said the court; it was not disproportionate; it served a pressing social need; and in such a case the state, which had a responsibility to promote public health, should be given a lot of leeway under human rights law when deciding how to satisfy that need.