David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the recent general election.
A hundred Conservative MPs voted against the Government’s policy on Covid-19 last week. Had I still been an MP, I would have voted with the Government, but I can understand why MPs might be sceptical. Its policy to limit access to public events for the unvaccinated does not go far enough.
Within Parliament, there is a cross-party consensus that vaccine passports – as opposed to the Government’s policy of Covid certificates – are unacceptable. The Liberal Democrats voted against Covid passes, and both Sajid Javid and Wes Streeting have declared their opposition. But, as the Omicron variant spreads and the prospect of a further lockdown increases, it is time that the proposal is revisited.
For those who think that is an appalling infringement of individual liberty to be asked to produce their smart phone or a piece of paper when entering a public venue, it is really time to get some perspective, and recognise that we live in a world of trade-offs and least worst options. Comparisons with Nazi Germany are downright offensive.
Ever since March 2020, there has been one immutable political fact. No Government can knowingly allow cases to grow to such a level that it results in the collapse of the NHS. There are times when the Government has been uncertain ,and taken action later than it should have done (as I fear is the case now) but, when approaching the precipice, this Government (and, indeed, any government that cares about maintaining the confidence of the public during a public health crisis) has stepped back and prioritised lives over liberties.
A government that negligently allows the NHS to be overwhelmed will be politically finished. Rather than denying this, or pretending that the risks are not real (as some Conservative MPs appear to be doing), the challenge for those of us who dislike lockdowns is to identify the least disruptive ways in which we can stop the spread of the virus and reduce the pressure on the health service.
If that is the approach, it becomes very obvious that many of our problems stem from a relatively small minority who have failed to become vaccinated. For some, there is a medical reason, and a sympathetic approach is appropriate, but for most it is simply a matter of personal irresponsibility.
A vaccinated person can still spread the virus, but will be less infectious than an unvaccinated person . Even more significantly, a vaccinated person is much less likely to be a burden on our over-stretched health service than an unvaccinated person.
Given that the unvaccinated make up just 11 per cent of the population over the age of 12 and that they are generally those in relatively low risk groups, it is remarkable how much of a burden these people are to the NHS.
Data from the summer file shows that the unvaccinated made up 73 per cent of intensive care unit admissions and, according to Professor Sir Andrew Hayward, Chair of the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation, the ongoing horror of severe Covid in our ICUs is ‘largely restricted to unvaccinated people’.
Both in terms of their tendency to spread Covid and the medical resources they are consuming, the argument that receiving the vaccine is a purely personal matter is nonsense. Much of the downside of an individual remaining unvaccinated falls on society as a whole, as the virus spreads more easily and taxpayers’ money is spent providing expensive medical care.
There is further indirect burden on the rest of society. If we take the approach that we will impose restrictions when we need to prevent the NHS being overwhelmed, the point at which this is necessary will be reached is much earlier if there are a significant number of people unvaccinated.
Imagine, for a moment, that the UK consisted only of people who have been tripled jabbed. In those circumstances, even were Omicron allowed to run wild, it is possible that the NHS would be able to cope without imposing restrictions. By contrast, in a country that was entirely unvaccinated, we would certainly have needed to be in full lockdown for the last couple of weeks (although the collapse of health care would still look likely).
In other words, all other things being equal, the higher the proportion of the population that is fully vaccinated, the fewer restrictions we need on society as a whole.
The costs of their anti-social behaviour need to be borne to a greater extent by the unvaccinated. We could, as a matter of policy, refuse to treat them but this would place medical practitioners in an impossible position.
We could charge the unvaccinated for the cost of their medical care, as is happening in Singapore, but this would offend against our national sensitivities over charging for healthcare at the point of delivery.
A policy of compulsory vaccinations (presumably enforced by fines for those who defy) appears to be impractical. This leaves us with vaccine passports.
We are likely to be about to lockdown the entire nation, including those who have done the right thing and got themselves jabbed. It would surely be preferable to have the option to target restrictions on those who, through their own fault, are at greater risk of spreading the virus and ending up requiring intensive care.
This is why the Government’s Covid pass policy does not go far enough. It enables the unvaccinated to produce a negative lateral flow test (which can be easily faked) and which only applies to large venues. The Government should return to the original Plan B proposal, and remove the negative LTF option plus extend the requirement to all hospitality venues.
The evidence from France is that tough measures on the unvaccinated shove the vaccine hesitant into taking action. A gentler, more consensual approach works well for most people but, at this stage, it is hard to see that it will ever work for most of those who remain. And, the first rule of public policy is that people respond to incentives.
Of course, some will say this creates a two tier society that it is inherently discriminatory. Too right it does – but ‘discriminatory’ does not mean the same as ‘unfair’. We should discriminate between those who have acted responsibly and been jabbed with those who have refused.
When it comes to a public health emergency, we discriminate all the time (we rightly discriminated in favour of the elderly and vulnerable when distributing the vaccines) and, in any event, it is a strange ideology (especially for those on the centre-right) that argues that one cannot discriminate between people on the basis of their individual choices. Actions, after all, have consequences.
This is very far from being a perfect solution, but perfect solutions are rarely available. When I listen to some of my former colleagues pontificate on these matters, however, I hear arguments that simply fail to confront the ghastly situation we are in and are just wishing the pandemic away.
It is quite possible that, for Omicron, it is already too late for vaccine passports to make an immediate useful contribution and we will have to have a full lockdown. But if we really want to preserve more of the liberties of the majority of the population and allow businesses to operate (albeit with additional requirements) whilst protecting the NHS, our MPs need to reconsider their opposition to a relatively modest imposition on the responsible majority. If we want to live with Covid safely and efficiently, vaccine passports have a role to play.