Sciensano organized a citizens participation project in which 103 Belgians, supported by experts, deliberated on the Belgian COVID-19 vaccination policy. Many see vaccination as the way forward. Others wonder whether vaccination on this scale is really necessary. Afterwards, the results of the project were presented to the minister of Public Health, Frank Vandenbroucke. With these corona consultations, Sciensano wants to help the government draw up a vaccination policy that can be fully supported by both the citizens and the government. In this regard, the keyword is and will continue to be: transparency.
To provide a good representation of the Belgian population, the participants in the debate were selected based on maximum diversity in their opinions on vaccination against COVID-19. Under the guidance of a moderator and expert, they were given the chance to have informed, open and constructive discussions with each other in different small groups. Several key messages for the vaccination policy emerged from this consultation.
Almost all of the participants in the debate were concerned about:
- the speed with which the vaccines were developed
- the scientific uncertainties about the vaccines (such as long-term side effects, potential adverse effects in people with underlying conditions, or the length of immunity following vaccination
- the role of the pharmaceutical industry
Minister Vandenbroucke listened to the core messages from the participants and engaged in a discussion with them.
“It is essential to be transparent about the vaccination policy if we want to gain and maintain the trust of the Belgian population. We have therefore been very transparent from the outset and we also continue to be honest at all times, for example whenever we receive information from one of the vaccine manufacturers”, stated the minister of Public Health. He emphasized that although people may call for solidarity, it is impossible to enforce solidarity. Maintaining free choice about whether people are vaccinated or not must therefore remain central to the Belgian vaccination policy, according to Minister Vandenbroucke.
Open and honest communication is essential
The need for a return to normal life is important to all participants. That is why many of them believe the current situation needs to be changed. Some feel there is no alternative to vaccination. However, this also gives rise to doubt over whether the pressure of the situation my be leading too much to hasty (scientific) decisions. The core message for policy-makers is therefore that there is aneed for mutual trust between policy-makers and the citizens. This trust can be greatly facilitated by good communication that is transparent and honest regarding the possible advantages and potential disadvantages of vaccination. This shows respect for the citizens and trust in their decisions.
However, one area of tension remains concerning the role of our government;
- Most participants say they can be motivated to accept vaccination if the government justifies its vaccination policy explicitly and all the relevant information is communicated in a transparent way. However, it is essential that the decision for effective vaccination remains an individual choice.
- A minority of the participants believe that the government must not adopt an explicit position regarding vaccination and that it decided to stake everything on vaccination much too early.
- A number of participants feel that the government should in fact make vaccination compulsory to a greater or lesser extent, particularly if we cannot achieve herd immunity in any other way.
Proof of vaccination?
The participants agreed that solidarity is key while there are insufficient vaccines for everyone: no discrimination, everyone equal before the law “health in numbers”. When the participants had a discussion between themselves about a later time when there would be enough vaccines available for everyone, an area of tension emerged between two main mindsets:
- On the one hand, there is a group that believes that the choice not to be vaccinated means that people must also accept the consequences of that choice. This group argues for a vaccination certificate that can be used in certain contexts (e.g. travel, crowded events, certain professions etc.). However, the consequences of a specific vaccination choice must not under any circumstances affect fundamental freedoms (such as, for example, receiving essential medical care) and we must avoid ending up in a society of control. There is a lot of discussion on how far people may go when making a distinction between vaccinated and non-vaccinated people.
- The second group of participants argued that making a distinction between vaccinated and non-vaccinated people instantly affects and limits free choice regarding vaccination. This group believes that granting various rights, obligations and opportunities based on someone’s vaccination status is equivalent to a form of indirect obligation and is therefore unacceptable. It could lead to discrimination and stigmatization and runs contrary to democratic principles such as free choice.