It is difficult to properly digest the pandemic and all that it has entailed. The impact on our day to day lives has been a profound shock to the system. And it has brought into sharp relief the pre-existing inequalities deeply embedded in our society.

While millions have had their already precarious lives thrown into further disarray, the super-rich have seen their wealth increase to unfathomable levels. The question of public health has been front and centre – and for good reason.

This is a serious virus, and not as some contend akin to the common cold. And that’s before we get to the ravages of long-covid. Accordingly, restrictions have been supported by large majorities according to polls. As Omicron is studied by scientists for its severity and potential ability to evade vaccines, it is clear that Covid is going to be a permanent feature.

But within all of this there are serious public policy debates to be had. Now some governments are employing far more punitive measures. In Greece, the over 60s are now mandated to accept vaccines. Failure to do so results in a monthly fine of €100. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, has said that the EU must consider mandatory vaccination. Austria has introduced lockdowns for unvaccinated citizens. There are many such examples.

These issues raise both public health and ethical questions. Vaccinations should of course involve informed consent. But this is removed if the alternative is some form of punishment. It is argued this will lead to a surge in uptake. But this is a long-term question, and many are correctly arguing that education is a far more effective – and moral – tool.

Consider NHS England. Here the Unite union has 100,000 members who work in the health service. They are arguing forcefully against mandatory vaccination. “Compulsion is a bad way to achieve a high-level response, will lead to increased resistance, a worsening staffing crisis and is embroiled with issues such as equalities, human rights, privacy, and ethical breaches,” say the union. They continue: “we believe that a campaign of persuasion of the benefits of the Covid vaccination is the best way to achieve maximum coverage.”

Meanwhile vaccine passports also pose serious questions. The Scottish Government has – for now – abandoned plans to implement such a scheme. But it is a live debate here and internationally. Health expert Professor Alyson Pollock argues that vaccine passports “don’t make public health sense” since “your vaccination status tells us nothing about whether you’re infectious or transmitting at that moment in time.” The quality and scale of discussion around vaccine passports must ratchet up – for here there are many considerations.

Beyond the immediate challenges around public health, we also have to consider the protection of medical data. As economist James Meadway writes: “We have all already taken part in a decade-long experiment in trusting new data collection agencies with our personal data. And judging by how much information we’ve handed over, “function creep” – when the introduction of a technology for one purpose leads gradually to its use in others – in coronavirus data collection looks to be highly likely.” Again, these matters are in the public interest, and deserving of broad and informed scrutiny.

The sense of unity we all drew confidence from as we clapped at our doorsteps in the weeks of the first lockdown seems far away now. But for a society to navigate the perils and the complexity of Covid, it is critical that there is a sense of coherence. Repressive and divisive measures will only breed distrust and in the eventual analysis open the door to wider social breakdown.

Thankfully, there are credible solutions that safeguard civil liberties and enhance public health. Instead of mandates and passports, we need education and to enhance testing to make venues safe.

Instead of Big Pharma monopolising the manufacture of vaccines, we need a global response that decentralises production for the common good as we attempt to stem the development of mutations.

And we need at all times to ensure that debates on these issues are public, accessible and informed by medical best practice and transparent governance. That can build trust and set stronger foundations for the long years ahead.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.