Alberto Giubilini’s Posts

Omicron Travel Restrictions Are Not Ethically Justified

Written by: Alberto Giubilini, Julian Savulescu

*A version of this blogpost appears as an article in the Spectator*

 

Governments are at it again. It has become an involuntary reflex. A few days after South Africa sequenced and identified the new Omicron variant, England placed some South African countries back in the ‘red list’. Quarantine has been imposed on all incoming passengers until they show evidence of a negative test. Some European countries banned incoming flights from that region. Switzerland introduced quarantine for passengers arriving from the UK, but also banned all the unvaccinated passengers from the UK from entering the country. The domino effect we have seen so many times during this pandemic has kicked in again.

Is closing borders ethical? We don’t think so. At the beginning of the pandemic, border closures were, arguably, too little too late. Angela Merkel sealed off Germany’s borders in March 2020 less than a week after having declared that, in the name of solidarity, EU countries should not isolate themselves from one another, as the situation was out of control and extremely uncertain. The UK was also criticized for closing borders and locking down too late. In fact, countries that closed borders relatively early, such as Australia and New Zealand, fared better in terms of keeping the virus at bay.

However, we are at a very different stage of the pandemic now.  The disease is endemic, vaccination has been introduced, and we have treatments available. Why do we think the same measures that might have been appropriate in March 2020 are the best response in this very different context?

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Cross post: Why COVID passes are not discriminatory (in the way you think they are)

Alberto Giubilini

(This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article)
The Conversation

UK health secretary Sajid Javid’s plans for vaccination requirements for frontline NHS workers has reignited the political and ethical debate over COVID passes.

The requirement constitutes a kind of vaccine pass; without proof of vaccination, healthcare workers are prevented from continuing working in the NHS in a frontline role. Other types of COVID passes have been introduced elsewhere, such as the so-called “green pass” used in many European countries.

COVID passes are certificates intended to limit the access to certain spaces – including, in some cases, the workplace – to people who are vaccinated, or who are thought to have immunity from previous COVID infections, or who have had a recent negative COVID test, or some combination thereof (depending on the type of pass). The aim is to minimise the risk that people in those spaces can infect others.

A common objection to COVID passes is that they are discriminatory because they would create a two-tier society with vaccinated people enjoying more freedom than the unvaccinated.

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The double ethical mistake of vaccinating children against COVID-19

 

Alberto Giubilini

Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics

University of Oxford

 

Against the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI)’s advice that did not recommend COVID-19 vaccination for children, the four Chief Medical Officers in the UK have just recommended that all children aged 12-15 should be vaccinated with the mRNA Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

This is a double ethical mistake, given our current state of knowledge.

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The end of the COVID-19 pandemic

 

Alberto Giubilini, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and WEH, University of Oxford

Erica Charters, Faculty of History and WEH, University of Oxford

 

 

A discussion on the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is overdue. We keep hearing that ‘we are in the middle of a pandemic’. However, it is not clear what it means to be in the middle of a pandemic if we don’t know what it means for a pandemic to end.  How can we know what the middle is if we don’t know what the end is?

We were given a clear date by the WHO for the start of the pandemic (11 March 2020). A few days earlier the WHO Director-General had for the first time used the term ‘epidemic’ to refer to COVID-19 outbreaks in some countries (5 March 2020). A disease is categorized as an epidemic when it spreads rapidly, with higher rates than normal, in a certain geographical area. A pandemic is an epidemic spreading over more than one continent. Thus, declaring epidemic and pandemic status is a decision based on epidemiological criteria.

By contrast, the end of an epidemic is not determined by epidemiological factors alone. Historically, epidemics end not with the end of the disease, but with the disease becoming endemic – that is, accepted and acceptable as part of normal life.

However, when and how a disease becomes normal or acceptable is primarily a social, cultural, political, and ethical phenomenon, rather than scientific or epidemiological.  It is a more subtle phenomenon – and less precise – than the start of the epidemic.  The end depends on how a society decides to respond to a pathogen that keeps circulating.  We might well find ourselves out of this pandemic without realising when and how it happened.

So, when will this pandemic end?

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What Is The Justification For Keeping Lockdown In Place? Two Questions For The UK Government

Written by Alberto Giubilini and Julian Savulescu

Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

Given the success of the vaccine roll out in the UK and the higher than expected drop in COVID-19 deaths, it is legitimate to ask whether lockdown should continue to be the key strategy to contain the pandemic or whether the ‘roadmap’ announced by the UK Government should be adjusted. Because lockdown is a very exceptional measure, the burden of proof is on the Government to provide answers as to why the easing of lockdown is proceeding at the current pace and not faster. The impact of lockdown is devastating for the economy, mental health, and employment rates and the cost and benefits are in many cases very unevenly distributed. For instance, the young are at highest risk of redundancy, but benefit less from lockdown because COVID-19 pose a very low risk on them. There is a serious concern around the rise of referrals for mental health assistance for  children and teenager over the past year. If the lockdown is justified at this stage, the Government has the burden of proof of providing a strong justification for this.

Such justification might need to be updated with respect to the one offered when the roadmap was announced on 22 February. That justification was centred on the target of “keeping infections rates under control” as determined by 4 tests: successful vaccine deployment program; vaccines being successful at reducing hospitalizations and deaths in the vaccinated; infection rates not putting unsustainable pressure on the NHS; and the risk assessment not being significantly altered by new variants.

Even assuming those criteria are fair, the justification now needs to take into account the “very very impressive” and “spectacular” results of vaccine rollout, to quote a lead researcher from Public Health Scotland.  As we shall see below, there are reasons to think that the vaccines are producing better results than those expected by the Government and assumed by the modelling used to inform the roadmap. Plausibly also because of the vaccine roll out, the drop in COVID-19 deaths in the UK is now three weeks ahead of the estimates of the modelling that the Government has used to design its roadmap: while the modelling estimated that COVID-19 deaths would fall below 200 a day after mid-March, we reached that point on 25 February. The model suggested we would have as few as 150 deaths per day by 21 March, but we are at that point now.

In light of these data, the Government would need to justify using indiscriminate lockdowns to achieve something – protection of the vulnerable and the NHS – which data suggest is now achievable without overburdening the whole society (as lockdown is doing) and possibly even without burdening those who need protection the most (as selective shielding would do). Vaccines are offering a level of protection to the vulnerable (roughly 80-90% drops in hospitalizations and deaths) that, if it was achieved through measures like selective shielding, would plausibly justify considering selective shielding successful. But vaccines do this without the downsides of indiscriminate lockdown or of selective lockdown.

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The UK Should Share The Vaccine With The Other Countries – But Only After All The Vulnerable Have Been Vaccinated

Written by Alberto Giubilini, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, University of Oxford

Cross posted with The Conversation

“We are all in this together”, except that we are not. One of the most widely used slogans of the pandemic might need to be adjusted. Maybe: “We are all in this together, until there is a way out.”

The way out is the COVID-19 vaccine. Or more precisely, the many COVID-19 vaccines. The UK has already approved three, with two more pending a decision by the drugs regulator.

Of these, one has been developed in the UK by the University of Oxford, with millions of pounds of funding from the UK government (aka, UK taxpayers), and made by the British/Swedish company AstraZeneca. Part of its manufacturing is in Europe, where Belgian plants have had production problems that have threatened the future supply to the EU.

Three vaccines are produced by US pharmaceutical companies (Pfizer, Moderna and Novavax), although the Pfizer vaccine has been developed in partnership with the German biotechnology company BioNTech, and the Novavax one is being made in the UK. One vaccine is made by Janssen, based in Belgium but owned by the American firm, Johnson & Johnson.

These geographical details might seem superfluous, but they are already making post-Brexit vaccine distribution more complicated than it should be. In the meantime, the World Health Organization has expressed concerns over the fading commitment to Covax, the programme set up to guarantee equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines around the world.

This is the moment countries part ways in their fight against COVID-19. We are no longer in this together. That is because we never chose to be in it together. We just happened to find ourselves in a pandemic that didn’t spare anyone. Now that we do have some choice, each country is taking care of their own first. Continue reading

Current Lockdown Is Ageist (Against The Young)

Written by Alberto Giubilini

Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities

University of Oxford

 

Former UK supreme court justice and historian Lord Jonathan Sumption recently made the following claim:

“I don’t accept that all lives are of equal value. My children’s and my grandchildren’s life is worth much more than mine because they’ve got a lot more of it ahead. The whole concept of quality life years ahead is absolutely fundamental if one’s going to look at the value of these things.”

This wasn’t very well received, to say the least. Experts were quickly recruited by the press to rebut his claims. Headlines were made to convey people’s outrage at the idea that we can put a value on human life, and what is worse, different values on different human lives (which, by the way, is precisely what the NHS regularly does whenever it decides whom to put on a ventilator when there are not enough ventilators for everyone, or when it decides not provide life-saving treatments that cost more than £ 30k per quality-adjusted-life-year). Continue reading

The Libertarian Argument Is the Best Argument Against Immunity Passports. But is it good enough?

Written by Julian Savulescu and Alberto Giubilini

The government has reportedly flirted with the introduction of vaccination passports that would afford greater freedoms to people who have been vaccinated for COVID-19. However, the UK’s Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, recently announced that vaccination passports are not currently under consideration in the UK. However, the issue may linger and businesses may introduce such requirements.

One of us (JS) defended immunity passports in the context of affording people with natural immunity greater freedom during lockdown, if immunity significantly reduces the risk of infecting others.

Vaccination passports–after vaccines have been made available–can be seen as a mild form of ‘mandatory vaccination’.  Proof of vaccination could be a requirement to, for example, access certain places (e.g. restaurants, hospitals, public transport, etc, depending on how restrictive we want the mandate to be) or engaging in certain social activities (e.g. mixing with people from different households) or enable health care or other care workers to not self-isolate if in contact with a person with COVID (there were 35 000 NHS workers in isolation at the peak of the pandemic because of contact). It is worth noting that this kind of measure has already been in place globally for a long time in a more selective way, e.g. in the US where, in most states, children cannot be enrolled in schools unless they are up to date with certain vaccinations. These are also a form of “vaccination passports”, which simply do not use that term. Yellow Fever Vaccination Certificates are required to travel to certain parts of the world where Yellow Fever is endemic.

The ethical ground for restriction of liberty is a person represents a threat of harm to others. That is, the grounds for lockdown, quarantine, isolation or mandating vaccination is to reduce the risk one person poses to another. However, if a person is no longer a threat to others, the justification for coercion evaporates. If either natural immunity or a vaccine prevents virus transmission to others (and this remains to be determined), the grounds for restricting liberty disappear. This is one argument for an immunity or vaccination passport – it proves you are not a threat to others.

Moreover, if we thought there were sufficient grounds for the drastic and long lasting restrictions of individual liberties entailed by lockdowns and isolation requirements, it is at least legitimate to ask whether there are also sufficient grounds for vaccination passports, given that the individual cost imposed – getting vaccinated – is likely to be much smaller than the cost entailed by those other measures (unless the risks of vaccines are significant).

However, the more effective a vaccine is, the greater the opportunity for individuals to protect themselves. A Libertarian could then argue that the risk of harming others is nullified. If you want to protect yourself, you can vaccinate yourself. If this is true, then a vaccine doesn’t need to give us herd immunity. We can take individual responsibility.

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