The unintended consequences of COVID-19 vaccine policy: why mandates, passports and restrictions may cause more harm than good

COVID-19 Milestone Series

Reproduced from the BMJ under a Creative Commons license (details below). First author: Kevin Bardosh et al.

Publication history

  • Received February 5, 2022
  • Accepted May 5, 2022
  • First published May 26, 2022.

Online issue publication May 26, 2022

Bardosh, K., de Figueiredo, A., Gur-Arie, R., Jamrozik, E., Doidge, J., Lemmens, T., … & Baral, S. (2022). The unintended consequences of COVID-19 vaccine policy: why mandates, passports and restrictions may cause more harm than good. BMJ Global Health, 7(5), e008684.

Summary box

  • Mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policies have been used around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic to increase vaccination rates. But these policies have provoked considerable social and political resistance, suggesting that they have unintended harmful consequences and may not be ethical, scientifically justified, and effective.
  • We outline a comprehensive set of hypotheses for why current COVID-19 vaccine policies may prove to be both counterproductive and damaging to public health. Our framework synthesizes insights from behavioural psychology (reactance, cognitive dissonance, stigma, and distrust), politics and law (effects on civil liberties, polarization, and global governance), socio-economics (effects on inequality, health system capacity and social wellbeing) and the integrity of science and public health (the erosion of public health ethics and regulatory oversight).
  • Our analysis strongly suggests that mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policies have had damaging effects on public trust, vaccine confidence, political polarization, human rights, inequities and social wellbeing. We question the effectiveness and consequences of coercive vaccination policy in pandemic response and urge the public health community and policymakers to return to non-discriminatory, trust-based public health approaches.


Vaccination policies have shifted dramatically during COVID-19 with the rapid emergence of population-wide vaccine mandates, domestic vaccine passports and differential restrictions based on vaccination status. While these policies have prompted ethical, scientific, practical, legal and political debate, there has been limited evaluation of their potential unintended consequences. Here, we outline a comprehensive set of hypotheses for why these policies may ultimately be counterproductive and harmful. Our framework considers four domains: (1) behavioural psychology, (2) politics and law, (3) socioeconomics, and (4) the integrity of science and public health. While current vaccines appear to have had a significant impact on decreasing COVID-19-related morbidity and mortality burdens, we argue that current mandatory vaccine policies are scientifically questionable and are likely to cause more societal harm than good. Restricting people’s access to work, education, public transport and social life based on COVID-19 vaccination status impinges on human rights, promotes stigma and social polarisation, and adversely affects health and well-being. Current policies may lead to a widening of health and economic inequalities, detrimental long-term impacts on trust in government and scientific institutions, and reduce the uptake of future public health measures, including COVID-19 vaccines as well as routine immunisations. Mandating vaccination is one of the most powerful interventions in public health and should be used sparingly and carefully to uphold ethical norms and trust in institutions. We argue that current COVID-19 vaccine policies should be re-evaluated in light of the negative consequences that we outline. Leveraging empowering strategies based on trust and public consultation, and improving healthcare services and infrastructure, represent a more sustainable approach to optimising COVID-19 vaccination programmes and, more broadly, the health and well-being of the public.

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial (CC BY-NC 4.0) license, which permits others to distribute, remix, adapt, build upon this work non-commercially, and license their derivative works on different terms, provided the original work is properly cited, appropriate credit is given, any changes made indicated, and the use is non-commercial. See:

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