The hardening of attitudes follows the publication of vaccination figures for last year, which show the levels for all childhood vaccinations – including meningitis vaccinations - are falling.
[Read our blog "Concern at drop in uptake of childhood meningitis vaccines" for more information.]
Speaking at a Conservative conference fringe event at the weekend, Matt Hancock said the government was looking to make vaccinations compulsory and had taken legal advice on how to go about this.
Unvaccinated children were "putting other children at risk", he said. "I'm very worried about falling rates of vaccinations - especially measles.”
"I don't want the debate to put people off because there is absolute clarity on what the science says and what the right thing is to do."
However, since then, Downing Street has said compulsory vaccination is not currently their position and they are not at the stage of refusing admission.
The government’s priority remains rightly to encourage the uptake of childhood vaccinations and they are looking at ways to make it easier for parents to ensure their children are vaccinated. This could be through making it easier for parents to book GP appointments and keeping better records on children who have not been vaccinated, for example.
The health secretary had previously said he was willing to look at “all options” to boost England's vaccination levels, including compulsory immunisation - and he would “rule nothing out”.
He appeared to firm up his stance at the weekend. "When the state provides services to people then it's a two-way street," he said. "You have to take your responsibilities too.”
What we think
At Meningitis Now we recognise that many of our supporters will have strong views on all this, given that meningitis is a devastating and yet often preventable disease.
Many people may see Mr Hancock’s stance as a positive move, and we recognise there is a strong argument to support such a law, given the devastation meningitis leaves in its wake.
Our current view, however, is that there would need to be clear evidence that such an approach would be successful in actually improving people’s uptake of vaccines, and that it would not simply further disenfranchise people from getting vaccinated.
We would also wish to see consideration as to whether the resource required to enforce compulsory vaccination would not be better spent on tacking some of the social, cultural, economic and health-system factors that that explain why some people chose not to (or are unable to) take up a vaccine. Should government consider initiating a programme of public engagement to deal with these issues, we would of course provide our full support.
We are mindful that the introduction of any legislation or compulsory programme is unlikely to happen soon, and we could call for any change to be subject to public consultation or engagement with experts in the field. As charity that aims to save lives, we shall continue to fight for vaccines that we know will prevent meningitis and other diseases.
Whatever turns out, we are ready to actively engage with the Department for Health and Social Care to bring about the best outcomes for all our children’s health.