Against visitor bans: freedom of association, COVID-19 and the hospital ward

Journal of Medical Ethics 49 (4):288-291 (2023)
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Abstract

To ban or significantly restrict visitors for patients in hospital could seem to be simply a sensible and easy precaution to take during a pandemic: a policy that is unpopular, perhaps, and even unfortunate, but not something that wrongs anyone. However, I argue that in fact such restrictions on visitors infringe upon a fundamental right, to freedom of association. While there may still be permissible restrictions on visitors, making the case for these becomes highly demanding. One common way to understand the purpose of the fundamental liberties is as protecting us from interference in a core set of freedoms, even when such interference would be to our benefit or would promote the general good. This reframing of the importance of visitors in terms of a right also has implications for how to run hospitals beyond the pandemic era: it supports a rapid expansion of visitor access and suggests that any decision to significantly restrict visitors ought not be left in the hospital, or hospital trust’s, hands.

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