Russell George is Conservative shadow minister for health in Wales
Looking at the state of the country, the potency of the virus, and the strength of the vaccine, I see no reason to introduce domestic vaccine passports. My Conservative Senedd colleagues and I would vote against attempts by Labour to introduce them in Wales.
Although they are usually only discussed in the context of large and close gatherings, like sporting events and nightclubs, this could quite easily slip into mission creep as the arm of the state over-reaches and makes ever great demands of its citizens. Once taken, powers are not easily surrendered.
My Welsh Conservative colleagues and I believe this, at this time, due to the wide ranging ethical, equality, privacy, legal, and operational ramifications.
We have all made extraordinary compromises on the freedoms that are a birth-right of all British citizens since March last year, but thanks to the phenomenal vaccine story, the time for the restoration of our liberty is here. And I’m not talking ‘liberty-lite’, but the ‘full-fat’ version.
We understand that the final stages of ‘unlocking’ has to be done carefully, but with the vaccination rate in Wales so significant and the link between cases and hospitalisation severely weakened, we do not believe the introduction of new barriers is the right thing to do at this time.
Intentionally or not, passports will prove discriminatory. When the vaccine rollout was recommended by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, the First Minister of Wales prioritised the distribution of jabs by vulnerability.
But this means that the last in society to receive their vaccines are the youngest, who are the group worst affected by lockdowns, and the most likely to enjoy the venues where passports will be needed, like nightclubs. The introduction of a passport system before then will exclude those at no fault of their own.
It is this principle that has led to Eric Clapton to say he won’t perform for a ‘discriminated audience’ if vaccination passports are made mandatory for clubs and venues. It won’t be a ‘Wonderful Tonight’ if we have to wear a badge at every carnival. These passports will be ‘Tearing Us Apart’.
Not only that, but Wales’ population is pretty small and relatively old. Thus, there are only a small number of young people. Combined with the excellent pace of the vaccination rollout and the absence of a serious variant here, there are only a handful of potential unvaccinated carriers of the virus here.
Indeed, a Welsh Government written statement from 27 July said over 90 per cent of adults in Wales have had their first dose and 78 per cent have also had their second. And is it not reasonable to presume that someone who had one dose would follow-through and get double-jabbed?
We shouldn’t forget either about those exempt for medical reasons – are they not entitled to have a night out like everyone else? They are free citizens that the government should serve, not control.
However, if the decision is then made to wait until all adults are double-jabbed before introducing vaccine passports, and the delta variant is the worst Coronavirus can throw at us, then they surely become obsolete.
By being double-vaccinated, people have reached the end of the road on what they can do to reduce their risk, short of being a hermit. The conversation must be had across the country that if two vaccinations is not the route back to complete freedom, what is? We are entitled to know because our freedoms are not privileges but rights.
Businesses do not want them either. Those in the hospitality sector have been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic, yet they are the ones that stand to be affected by passports.
After spending thousands on plastic screens, and losing thousands by reducing capacity to meet social distancing requirements, the last thing they need is to introduce yet another measure that will limit their custom and necessitate another heavy-handed ID check.
Never mind that young people will be the most affected as customers, they constitute the workforce in these venues too. We Conservatives should be finding ways to reward young people who have been unemployed or studying in bedrooms to protect older generations for months on end. Indeed, we cannot conserve without generational fairness – domestic vaccine passports are totally counter to this.
As a former chair of the Senedd’s economy committee, I can tell you too that there will be economic consequences to making life harder for the most “locked-down” industry, and putting further breaks on the career development and emotional well-being of a generation, who really had to put their whole lives on pause for over a year.
Given how late in the rollout we will be by the time passports can be put in place this autumn and the lack of a vaccine-dodging variant, many are rightly questioning what the point of this is. We will have reached, or be in touching distance, of herd immunity through vaccination.
Who is the passport system meant to serve at this stage? And what will happen if a booster jab is required? Will you only be allowed into a venue if you’ve had three jabs? It’s a pandora’s box.
The vaccines are working. The vast majority trust them and have, or are planning to have, them as soon as possible. England recently had its ‘freedom day’. Wales is due its own soon. We must ensure reality lives up to the name and remember that vaccine passports aren’t a route out of restrictions. They are one.