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16 Feb, 2021 15:17

Vaccine passports MUST be resisted as a solution to the Covid crisis; they’ll simply encourage state-backed snooping

Vaccine passports MUST be resisted as a solution to the Covid crisis; they’ll simply encourage state-backed snooping

Amid all the talk of vaccine passports being introduced, it’s important to remember the pandemic will pass – so there is no need to embed authoritarian measures that will create a dangerous precedent we may live to regret.

We live in a period where many of our most basic freedoms have been taken away from us. In the UK, everyone has been told to stay at home unless they have some exceptional reason – work, exercise, buying essentials – for being outdoors.

The only route out of this that would satisfy the health lobby at the moment is for sufficient people to have immunity that the epidemic dies out, or reaches a sustainably low level of spread. The vaccination programme is thus the best way to end the crisis in the absence of a political demand for more freedom.

But why should such restrictions apply to those who already have immunity? According to the figures up to February 14, 15.3 million people have already had at least one jab; over half a million people have had the second jab, too. Allowing a reasonable time for immunity to develop, perhaps these people could be allowed to return to something like normality.

Moreover, a substantial proportion of the population has already been infected with the virus itself. Even allowing for the slow start to testing, over four million people have tested positive. Professor Neil Ferguson, who led the team at Imperial College which provided the game-changing epidemic modelling last March, has recently suggested that “certainly 30 per cent” of the population has been infected with the virus. So, allowing for some overlap – people who have tested positive and later had the vaccine – we could still be approaching half the UK adult population that has substantial immunity, at least to serious disease, already.

With the economy still tanking, wouldn’t it make sense to give those who are immune some means to prove that and allow them to get on with their lives? Surely it is better than locking people up in quarantine when they need to travel, as the UK started on Monday?

The messages from the government have been mixed. On February 7, the minister in charge of the vaccination programme, Nadhim Zahawi, said that while the government is looking at the technology that might enable vaccine passports, the idea is discriminatory. He stressed, “That’s not how we do things. We do them by consent.”

But the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, was more equivocal in a radio interview last Sunday: “It’s something that hasn’t been ruled out. It’s under consideration, but of course, you’ve got to make it workable… I’m not sure there’s a foolproof answer in the way that sometimes it’s presented, but of course we’ll look at all the options.”

In principle, there are pros and cons. On the one hand, why deny the whole population the opportunity to get back to normal while they wait for the rest of us to get the jabs? It could take until the autumn for everyone to have had two jabs. On the other hand, Zahawi is right to say that this would create a two-tier society, where those who haven’t been vaccinated must continue to live with restrictions. Moreover, given the way the most vulnerable are being prioritised, within a few weeks the vast majority of those officially ‘unprotected’ will be those at least risk of dying from the disease.

There are also more serious ethical questions to answer. For example, we generally agree in a free society that no one should be forced to accept a medical intervention. It is not entirely unreasonable if you are young and healthy, with low risk of serious illness and death, to prefer not to be vaccinated. (Personally, I can’t wait to get the jab – the benefits of protection vastly outweigh the risks of any lasting side effects.)

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But if your employers demand that you are vaccinated in order to keep your job, that could leave many people in a position where they are forced to accept one. Similarly, if you need to prove you have been vaccinated in order to travel abroad or to enter certain venues like pubs and supermarkets, a refusal to be vaccinated is a form of punishment.

There are also serious practical difficulties. First, there is the question of how effective vaccines are at preventing an infected person from transmitting the virus to other people. The initial evidence is promising, but no one thinks that vaccines stop transmission as effectively as they prevent serious illness.

So vaccine passports may not do the job that is claimed for them. There is the related question of whether having had the virus is a guarantee that you won’t get it again. If immunity does wane or new variants reduce the effectiveness of vaccinations, would you need to get a jab every year to keep your passport?

Second, there is the question of fraud. A physical passport would be easy to counterfeit. Unless we expect bars and shops to introduce machines that can read biometric data, as is now installed at airports, there is a limit to how secure a card would be. A smartphone app has the potential to be better, but has plenty of difficulties and disadvantages of its own.

Third, to be much use for travelling or for people working across borders, there would need to be a system that works everywhere. Given the European Union’s slow rollout of a vaccine, how long would it take to agree upon such a system, especially when there are serious disagreements between member states about the merits and ethics of vaccine passports in the first place?

Above all, vaccine passports create a permanent precedent for state-backed snooping, undermining our privacy and turning liberties – civil rights – into privileges for those who agree to comply. This pandemic has clearly been a serious problem for societies across the world. It is, however, a temporary one.

As vaccines spread across the globe and as we find better ways to treat the disease as well as to prevent it, this disease will fade in our memories like every other pandemic. If we go down the route of introducing vaccine passports, we risk embedding authoritarian measures permanently. That really would be a disaster.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.