Boris risks defeat with his pointless vaccine passports

by Tom Hewitt

Once the most vulnerable had been vaccinated, the time would have come to ‘cry freedom’ – so said Health Secretary Matt Hancock less than three months ago. What’s changed?

Well other than the continuation of the extremely successful vaccine rollout, with virtually all over 50s now vaccinated, alongside brilliant data demonstrating that the vaccines also prevent most transmission, nothing is the answer. So why on earth is the Government planning to introduce vaccine passports?

Unfortunately, as with much of the Government’s policy-making throughout this pandemic, the Government will not publicly explain why. Fortunately, someone let Sky News know. Essentially, some Government scientists are warning the Prime Minister that even a mostly vaccinated population will not be sufficient to contain the spread of coronavirus in the event of all restrictions being removed. Extended social distancing measures are what the scientists are said to really want, with vaccine passports Boris Johnson’s attempt at a compromise.

Now Johnson is of course right to ignore these indefinite calls for social distancing: people and businesses cannot be expected to keep their lives on hold forever. But that does not mean there should be vaccine passports instead. The arguments simply do not stack up.

Even before considering the ethics of such a scheme, at the core of the problem is that for those who believe vaccination works, the data show passports are just not necessary. This is especially true in the UK, given that the UK is one of the most pro-vaccination countries in Europe – with only 5 per cent of the population against being vaccinated, according to the most recent Ipsos Mori poll.

Because of this high voluntary uptake, according to behavioural specialist Stephen Reicher, the chances are that all vaccine passports would do is risk undermining overall vaccination rates; the data demonstrate that when things are made compulsory a segment of people tend to instinctively rebel.

Beyond just vaccination rates, the social justice implications of vaccine passports are also worrying. Whilst the UK has rightfully prioritised the vaccine rollout by age, as a result the vast majority of young adults will not be fully vaccinated for months, with those under 18 not currently planned to receive it at all. Having already suffered the most in terms of unemployment and lost social opportunities (despite being at little risk from coronavirus themselves), it would be beyond perverse to disproportionately handicap young people further when society re-opens.

Similarly, whilst overall support for vaccination is high, there are various groups for either cultural, faith or health reasons that are less likely to get vaccinated (some ethnic minority communities and pregnant women in particular). Vaccine passports would risk creating a two-tier society.

Nevertheless, it is true that many of these inequities in uptake should have evened out by the autumn – if the Government delays the introduction of the scheme until then, as has been mooted. But such a wait would only make the scheme even more pointless: when virtually everyone has been vaccinated then herd immunity should be acting to protect the unvaccinated minority.

Combined with the practical burden such a scheme would pose for businesses, as well as the risks for staff in having to demand personal information from potentially hostile customers, however the Government spins it there is simply no credible case for these passports.

With the news that Labour and the Lib Dems (who have latently rediscovered their liberalism) now look set to oppose this scheme – alongside an already sizeable number of Tory rebels – unless there is a change of tack, it will not require too many more for the Government to go down to an embarrassing defeat. Time for a rethink.

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