It seems only yesterday that ministers were discussing the possibility of a Coronavirus vaccine, so there is much to be happy about this week, as health practitioners gear themselves up to administer millions of the Pfizer/ BioNTech jab across the UK.
But one thing that’s causing concern is Covid-19 vaccination ID cards, which will be given to anyone who’s been inoculated. Although these are fairly primitive and mainly designed to help people record, and then remember, the dates of their first and second dose, civil liberty campaigners are worried that these could evolve into something more far-reaching. Could they soon become de facto immunity passports?
These fears haven’t exactly been allayed by the Government, which has given mixed messages on the subject. Nadhim Zahawi, who’s in charge of rolling out the vaccine, was first to encourage speculation after suggesting that “restaurants and bars and cinemas and other venues” would probably use an immunity passport system “as they have done with the (test and trace) app.”
Michael Gove then quashed these claims by saying that there were no plans for vaccine IDs, but today, on Sky News, James Cleverly seemed uncertain about the future of Covid immunity passports. Given that the Government has changed its mind on similar issues before – with Gove previously saying that face masks should not be mandatory in shops only for this to happen – it’s not completely out of the question to believe IDs could become reality.
Proponents of vaccine passports will say they make perfect sense; that they’re the easiest way for businesses to get back to normality, and so forth. Already there are signs that airlines want them, and many countries will no doubt ask for evidence of immunity at passport control, with some asking for negative Covid tests currently. Even so, the UK must not be tempted to follow. It must stick to its own course, and wind down the number of rules and apps now policing people’s lives.
Much has been written about how vaccine IDs could damage civil liberties, dividing up society by way of health status. The idea of living in a country in which a health card is the determinant of freedom is unpalatable, and vaccination passports would also open the door to immunity passes for other diseases.
But even on a logistical scale, they simply do not make sense. Think of the amount that will have to be printed each year if Covid immunity doesn’t last and a new batch has to be sent off, as well as the black market that would need to be policed for forged IDs.
Furthermore, it’s not obvious that businesses would support such a move. Yes, ID cards give venues assurances in regards to working out who has and hasn’t had the virus; venue owners can prove that they are “Covid-secure”. But they would also rule out huge numbers of their customers, particularly those aged under 50, who will not be vaccinated until next year (if at all).
Although the Government says there are no plans for immunity passports so far, there has been a temptation throughout this crisis to escalate Coronavirus measures, especially when the media starts to hype up an idea. But these can be extremely difficult to roll back (already Jonathan Van-Tam has said that masks could be with us for the future). Even in contemplating vaccine IDs, we are opening the door to unimaginable possibilities.