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The protesters wandering aimlessly and sometimes violently through the streets of Melbourne this week started out largely as construction workers but appear to have grown more varied and even less coherent, since. But one message has been consistent: that it is an injustice to be forced to vaccinate as a condition of doing your job.

Protesting is a legitimate form of political action in a democracy. But this week’s thuggish verbal and physical abuse directed at union leaders and particularly at police has been shameful. The Age has watched with alarm the increasing aggression at the “freedom” rallies in recent months, behaviour with little or no regard for the freedoms and rights of others. Protesters taking over the West Gate Bridge and having the hide to take their grievances to the Shrine of Remembrance reveals a breathtaking arrogance out of step with the vast majority of Victorians.

But what of the argument that compulsory vaccination is an unjustifiable infringement of the rights of individuals? This is a complex question, but there are some principles. The Age has argued previously that mandating vaccination for all aged care workers was the right call. The same goes for the state’s government’s move on Wednesday to mandate vaccination for all staff at schools and early childhood centres. Also, those who work in hospitals or in other healthcare settings should be vaccinated for their own safety and that of others.

The role of teachers is partly a caring one. Teachers engage closely with young people, who have been shown to be victims and spreaders of the Delta variant of the virus. Ensuring teachers are inoculated is a crucial element in returning schools to normal.

The argument for compulsory vaccination of construction workers is not as clear-cut, and we can expect more industries to be subject to such public health orders. Both the CFMEU and the broader union movement have advocated strongly that members get vaccinated voluntarily but are mostly wary of compulsory vaccination. In response to a series of recent COVID-19 outbreaks across the construction sector, the state government issued a vaccination mandate.

Construction was privileged to operate almost continuously through the first waves of the pandemic with relatively few cases. As with so much else, Delta has changed everything. Now building sites have become the source of more than 300 new infections in Melbourne and anyone who has walked past a construction site has witnessed widespread non-compliance with mask wearing and other safety measures. In response, health orders were issued last week that tea rooms on construction sites must be closed, and workers vaccinated. That order prompted Monday’s angry walk-off and triggered three days (so far) of unprecedented protests.

Protesters at the Shrine of Remembrance on Wednesday.Credit:Eddie Jim

Building workers are in close proximity to each other on sites, but unlike teachers, healthcare and childcare workers, they are not in a caring or pastoral role. Yes, we mandate seatbelts and speed limits, but many of us would be uncomfortable telling adults what medication they must take in order to keep their jobs. That is something that requires a good deal of thought and careful explanation.

On the other hand, vaccines protect not just us but our workmates, families and children. It is not just about the individual, as the protesters would have us believe. We can foresee a time when many workers, from office to hospitality and retail, will be unwilling to return to their jobs not knowing whether their colleagues are vaccinated. That is a complex and difficult issue for employers and for all of us.

Perhaps one answer is to look at the pragmatic impact of a vaccine mandate. Experts have told our reporter Farrah Tomazin that coercion of this kind should be a last resort. One of the potential consequences is that, as University of Sydney vaccine uptake specialist Julie Leask argues, “you further radicalise the anti-vax activists because they often join forces with groups who are more just generally concerned with personal freedoms”. What has happened this week seems to vindicate her view.

The NSW health authorities have taken a more nuanced approach than Victoria’s. There is a vaccine mandate for construction workers there, but only for those workers who live in one of the local government areas with a high rate of coronavirus infections. There is no blanket mandatory vaccination order.

When vaccinations were mandated for workers in aged care facilities, the workers were given plenty of notice, and the decision was well explained and justified. The Victorian government’s own experts say the way it has handled this mandate – a snap decision, tersely announced – inflamed an already tense situation.

There is no excuse for the behaviour of some of the protesters. That is the bottom line, whatever they think about government orders. All the same, the government’s handling of this left a lot to be desired.

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