Were governments right to introduce COVID-19 vaccine mandates?  

By on 12/04/2022 | Updated on 14/04/2022
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the FDA giving full approval to the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, 23 August 2021, in the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building at the White House.
President Joe Biden signed an executive order mandating vaccines for around 3.5 million federal staff and government contractors in September. White House photo by Adam Schultz

Countries including the US and Canada have mandated COVID-19 vaccines for government workers as part of plans to thwart coronavirus. In this feature, Mia Hunt assesses whether such policies have been effective and shares civil and public servants’ views from an exclusive Global Government Forum survey

When COVID-19 vaccines started to become available in late 2020, the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. After nearly a year of the public health crisis, widespread lockdowns and associated disruption to people’s lives and national economies, there was a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. But it was both a great achievement and something of a headache for governments.

The vaccine would dramatically reduce the number of people becoming seriously ill with coronavirus and take the pressure off hospitals that had for months been operating at breaking point. And it would enable governments to begin slowly lifting restrictions and, in turn, restart economies. But all this relied on one thing – people’s willingness to have the vaccine.

In an age of rising populism, and with conspiracy theories and fake news spreading like wildfire on social media, governments and scientists had to work hard to cut through the clamour and disseminate the facts, with varying success. At the same time, many ministers, whose civil servants had been working either wholly or partially remotely for months, had designs on getting the workforce back into offices.

To get things moving, some governments introduced COVID-19 vaccine mandates either for the entire civil or public service or sections of it. This enabled governments to get staff back together in workplaces safely and to act as a role model for wider society, signalling that the vaccine was safe and that it would enable citizens to get back to some semblance of what their lives had been like pre-pandemic.  

But how effective have those public sector vaccine mandates been? What are civil servants’ perceptions of mandates both in countries where they have been introduced and those where they haven’t? And could they have a negative impact on civil service recruitment and retention?  

For, against, or a bit of both – civil servants have their say

To find out, Global Government Forum ran a survey. Open between 26 January and 19 February, it gathered nearly 4,000 responses from civil and public servants in 10 countries – Canada, the US, UK, New Zealand, Italy, Mexico, Australia, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Colombia.

The survey found that a slim majority of officials agree with vaccine mandates, with 48.8% in favour of the measure, and 45.7% against. The close result shows just how divisive the issue is. Drill down into the results by country, though, and there is some variation. Of the five countries with the most survey respondents (100 or more each) – Canada, the US, the UK, New Zealand, and Italy – New Zealand is the most supportive, with 58.9% agreeing with vaccine mandates for government employees.

While respondents in the US are most against the intervention – 49.7% disagree with it – those in the UK are least supportive. There, 44.3% of respondents agree with vaccine mandates for civil servants. But it is also the case that fewer people from the UK disagree with mandates than any of the other four countries bar New Zealand. This apparent discrepancy is explained by a higher number of people than in the other countries saying they neither agree nor disagree with vaccine mandates.

Respondents in Canada and Italy are split down the middle in terms of whether they agree or disagree with vaccine mandates, at around 47% and 48% respectively in both countries.

Of the five countries, only the UK has no vaccine mandate in place. There were plans to make vaccination mandatory for all health and social care workers in England from 1 April this year but the government formally revoked these last month after 90% of those responding to a public consultation disagreed with the plans. 

Italy has the most wide-reaching mandate. One of the worst affected countries early in the pandemic, its government initially introduced a vaccine mandate for teachers and healthcare workers and in September last year became the first European country to extend that to its 1.2 million government and local authority employees and all private sector workers. In January this year, it expanded that further still, making it mandatory for all individuals over 50 to get the vaccine whether in employment or not.

Canada and the US have introduced mandates for their federal employees. And in New Zealand, vaccination is mandatory for workers in health, education, corrections, fire and emergency, and border control, while some other government departments and agencies require staff working in frontline roles or who want to work from offices to be vaccinated.

While these countries have declared the mandates successful, they have not been without controversy, even in New Zealand where public trust in government is considered high.

Read the full results of Global Government Forum’s vaccine mandate survey, including perceptions in Australia, Brazil, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern was initially reluctant to introduce mandates but decided they were necessary to reach the vaccination levels needed to safely reopen following lockdowns put in place to curb the Delta outbreak. The mandates are “undoubtedly” one of the reasons 95% of the country’s eligible population is fully vaccinated, she has said.

New Zealand news website Newshub revealed in February that more than 2,600 government workers had been ‘stood down’ for failing to comply with the mandate. More than half of that number were in the health sector, with 814 having had their employment terminated, 226 having been stood down from their duties, and 140 staff having chosen to resign, according to government data. A spokesperson reportedly told Newshub that around 7% of the 13,500 frontline workers covered by the mandate were no longer “attending incidents”.

That same month, inspired by the truckers protests in Canada, thousands of people blocked streets around New Zealand’s parliament in the capital, Wellington, to protest against COVID-19 vaccine mandates and restrictions, culminating in violence and 120 arrests. Three days later, on 25 February, the mandate for police and the defence force – which required staff to have two doses of the vaccine by 1 March or face being fired – was branded unlawful and quashed by the High Court.

Ardern later announced that from 4 April vaccine mandates would be dropped for workers in some sectors, including education, but would continue to apply for those in health, corrections, aged care and at the border.  

Like New Zealand, the US government has also come up against the courts on the issue of whether vaccine mandates are lawful.

Having announced in July last year that he was considering mandatory vaccination for federal employees, president Joe Biden signed an executive order mandating vaccines for around 3.5 million federal staff and government contractors in September. Employees were told they must be fully vaccinated or face the possibility of disciplinary action “up to and including removal from service”.  

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said  the “overarching objective” of the discipline process for feds who flout vaccine mandate rules was to reduce the number of unvaccinated Americans, which stood in October 2021 at around 80 million. “We want to reduce that number, decrease hospitalisations and deaths and allow our children to go to school safely… Obviously the federal workforce is one of the largest in the country and we would like to be a model of what we think other businesses and organisations should do around the country,” she said.

In November, the US Office of Management and Budget announced there had been 96.5% compliance with the mandate across federal government. It defined those in compliance as having had at least one dose of the vaccine or with a pending or approved exception or extension. “Government has shown these requirements work: they increase vaccination rates – leading to a safer, more productive, and efficient workforce. They’re good for workers, good for businesses, and good for the country,” the White House said in a statement.

Read more: Commerce and transportation departments top US federal vaccine mandate table

However, in late January a court issued an injunction against the mandate, ruling that the Biden administration exceeded its authority by issuing it. Judge Jeffrey Brown of a district court in Texas said the case – brought by Feds For Medical Freedom – was not about whether people should be vaccinated but “instead about whether the president can, with the stroke of a pen and without the input of Congress, require millions of federal employees to undergo a medical procedure as a condition of their employment,” Brown wrote. “That under the current state of the law […] is a bridge too far.” 

That decision was overturned by an appeals court last week, though the ruling wasn’t based on the president’s legal authority in the matter but on a technicality – the mandate was reinstated by an appeals court after a panel of judges ruled that the plaintiffs hadn’t followed the complaints procedure set out in the Civil Service Reform Act.

A man protests against COVID-19 vaccine mandates in Canada in February. Photo by michael_swan via Flickr

Canada, meanwhile, announced in August 2021 that all federal government workers must be vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of the following month by law or face unpaid leave – though this was later extended to the end of October. The government said in a statement that, as the country’s largest employer, it must show leadership in protecting public servants and the communities in which they live and work.

“We know vaccinations are the best way to help protect our fellow Canadians from COVID-19 variants of concern,” Dominic LeBlanc, president of the Privy Council for Canada and minister of intergovernmental affairs, said at the time. “We are encouraged by the many federal employees who have already been vaccinated, and hope that vaccination rates will continue to climb as the Government of Canada moves ahead on its vaccination strategy.”  

Moral duty or civil liberties infringement?

As for civil and public servants’ perceptions of vaccine mandates, the survey’s free text box, which allowed respondents to explain the reasons behind their answers anonymously, and comments posted on the Global Government Forum website, offer a snapshot of the arguments seen in wider society. Those who agree with vaccine mandates believe that the vaccines are safe, feel a moral responsibility to get the jab to protect themselves and others, and often feel that government staff should lead the way in the hope that citizens will follow suit.

“This may be the ‘land of the free’ but we are in the middle of a pandemic that knowns no boundaries and there’s no stopping it unless we vaccinate […] Be an American and do your part – vaccinate – the life you save may be your own,” one person wrote.

Another feels that vaccine mandates, while not ideal, are necessary. “While I’m not generally in favour of the government forcing citizens to do pretty much anything against their will – COVID-19 is a serious virus that obviously kills people,” they wrote. “The vaccinations have proven to be safe and very effective in reducing the risk of serious COVID illness, and almost completely eliminating COVID death. I begrudgingly support the COVID vaccination mandate, and really – why would anyone wish to make this a political issue and the last hill they fight on?!”

On the other hand, many believe they should have the right to choose whether or not they get the vaccine and see government intervention of this kind as an infringement of civil liberties. Those on this side of the fence typically voice stronger opinions, describing governments’ decisions to mandate vaccines as, for example, “disgusting”, “tyranny”, and “coercion and control”.   

“Freedom, liberty and individual rights. My body, my choice,” one Canadian survey respondent wrote.

And then there are those – in the UK particularly – who appear to be in favour of vaccines but have concerns that mandates risk undermining public health programmes generally and give rise to anti-vax rhetoric.

For example, one person wrote: “[An] ineffective and damaging way to drive up vaccination rates – damages people’s livelihoods, causes more animosity and alienates those who are hesitant, pushing them further to more extremist views. [It also] damages the strategy needed to properly protect against COVID – testing, face masks, distancing and vaccines – by making people assume vaccinations will completely halt transmissions.”

Read more: Aye of the needle: overcoming vaccine hesitancy

And another: “Vaccine mandates completely undermine years of carefully built-up trust in public health. Coercing people into health interventions is just bad policy. All this will do is create mistrust and mean that uptake of vaccines in general is lower. It also serves to mainstream anti-vaccine movements which were until now on the margins of society.”

This chimes with the stance taken by the World Health Organization from a public health perspective. In April 2021, WHO said it “does not presently support the direction of mandates for COVID-19 vaccination, having argued that it is better to work on information campaigns and making vaccines accessible”.

Assessing effectiveness

As for whether the survey respondents think vaccine mandates will be effective in driving up vaccination rates, 59.4% agree and 26.5% disagree. This shows that many of those who do not agree with vaccine mandates nevertheless believe that they are or will be effective.

However, there are problems with measuring mandates’ success and effectiveness, not least that it is impossible to know how many people would have got vaccinated had it not been required by law. And then there are those – in the US, for example – who have been granted or are seeking exemption from the mandate on medical or religious grounds to take into account. What proportion of those are genuine and what proportion of those seeking exemption have no grounds to do so but are trying their luck in the hope of avoiding the jab?

Denis McDonough, secretary of the US Department of Veterans Affairs – which issued its own vaccine mandate ahead of Biden’s government-wide one – said in October that the number of the department’s employees seeking exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine far exceeded those sought when the department mandated inoculations for flu.

Compare the proportion of federal workers who have been vaccinated with that of the general population, though, and it appears the mandate has been successful. The White House’s Psaki said at the end of January that more than 93% of the 3.5 million federal employees covered by the mandate had received at least one jab while the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 77.0% of the total US population of 332 million had received their first dose as of 5 April. Though the comparison between the general population and those working for government is not an easy one and largely ignores factors such as socio-economic background, this suggests loosely that the vaccine mandate has been successful in driving up vaccination rates if not among citizens, as a knock-on effect, then certainly among civil and public servants.

In Canada, by the end of March, 98% of federal public servants were fully vaccinated. The country’s chief public health officer, Dr Theresa Tam, said during a press conference in February that “there’s now obvious evidence that [vaccine mandates] work. We saw a plateau in the uptake of vaccines after a really tremendous effort by Canadians, and then after the introduction of vaccine mandates by the various provinces and territories and jurisdictions, we did see an uptick”.

Health minister Jean-Yves Duclos added that in the six months to mid-February as many as three million Canadians chose to get vaccinated sooner because of the mandate.

Now, the Canadian government is considering whether to narrow its mandate requirements, like New Zealand has done, or abolish it completely.

Read more: Trust and teamwork: Hannah Cameron on how New Zealand dodged the COVID bullet

Among the consideration for governments reviewing their vaccine mandates is what impact it could have on civil servants’ return-to-office. Some argue that scrapping mandates could derail plans, particularly as many public servants are keen to continue to work from home and could resist returning to the workplace without a vaccination policy in place.

According to Global Government Forum’s survey, 46.8% of respondents said they feel safe (or would feel safe) working on-site without a vaccine mandate in place, while 44.3% said they do not or would not feel safe.

Impact on recruitment and retention

Countries that have introduced vaccine mandates, particularly those with strong enforcement policies that include firing non-compliant staff, have had to decide whether the effectiveness of the mandate in boosting vaccination rates outweighs the possible fallout. As well as the risk of losing staff, potential negative effects include creating a divide among colleagues that damages workforce morale, and putting off potential talent from applying for government jobs.

In the survey, 57.9% of respondents agree that vaccine mandates for government employees will affect retention, with staff either choosing to quit rather than get the vaccine or being fired for non-compliance. Nearly a quarter disagree.  

“I suppose that means I am fired,” one GGF reader commented on a web story about the introduction of the mandate for US federal employees. “What an injustice for employees. I don’t work with the public and will be fired for non-compliance. I am sure others will leave and work establishments will lose great employees.”

As for recruitment, 43.3% of survey respondents believe vaccine mandates for public servants will put people off applying for government jobs, while 38.7% believe there will be no impact.

“In a context of labour shortage, coercive measures like mandatory vaccination may pose more risks than benefits,” one person wrote.

Another said: “Our workplace does not have a vaccine mandate per se, but without vaccination one cannot come into the office or interact with the public. I believe that this will force people from their jobs. Mandates must be considered in the context of the overall support for vaccination. They are a clumsy, heavy-handed tool if not supported by good public health communications and community support. They will increase vaccination rates and show that the public sector is leading but at what cost?”

Read more: Exclusive: vast majority of public servants still working remotely, GGF survey finds

Opinions such as these leave governments under no misapprehension that vaccine mandates are problematic. Some national administrations felt it their duty to enforce them in a bid to protect their workforce and the communities it serves and to stand up as an example to the wider public. Others, concerned about harming public trust and future public health programmes, chose communication campaigns aimed both at staff and the general public as their weapon of choice in the fight against coronavirus.

The evidence suggests that countries that have introduced mandates for public servants have been successful in increasing vaccination uptake. But with hesitant and anti-vax employees given little choice but to comply, at what cost to morale and retention?

One day, we may have the data that provides an unequivocal answer as to whether or not vaccine mandates were the right choice in the case of COVID-19 – and crucially, whether governments will turn to such interventions again when faced with future pandemics and health emergencies. But as the GGF survey indicates, one thing we can say for certain is that the issue has divided public servants like few before it.

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

5 Comments

  1. Verna says:

    Great article and I agree the government overstepped its reach and people should not be losing their livihood or employment over a vaccine mandate, or be political pawns of the current government in power, just for political gain. In fact it may well have the opposite effect and people will no longer vote for those who put the vaccine mandate in place where most employees never work with the public.

  2. Siniva Aniese Siufanga says:

    I have resigned from my job Administrator at Waikato DHB due to Mandates and the discriminative comments said about people who are unvaccinated. They are people whether they decide to vaccinate or not. The Mandate divided people in Society. Treating them like they are bad people when there are real criminals out there that hurt people. My partner is not vaccinated he had covid and he survived.

  3. Josh says:

    It’s odd to examine the ethics aspect of health mandates while not examining the health aspect of health mandates.

  4. Greg Abell says:

    When you consider the fact that vaxxed and boosted persons are now just as likely to get covid, the argument that me being vaxxed protects other people is moot. Its time. Let people decide on their own health. End the vaccine mandates.

  5. SW says:

    One point to keep in mind with regard to the surveys is that these surveys were run AFTER the unvaccinated (and/or employees unwilling to disclose) groups were placed on leave meaning that the respondents were ALL vaccinated employees. Safe to say the data and results have significant bias that hasn’t been acknowledged!
    Current data shows a negative efficacy – the vaccinated are now proven to be MORE likely to get sick (repeatedly) and/or die from covid.

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