I have had a number of people contacting me, raising concerns about Covid status certification or ‘Vaccine passports’ as they are more commonly termed. I have waited to reply until the Prime Minister’s statement yesterday as there was a lot of vivid speculation circulating about how restrictive any new scheme would turn out to be, most of which turned out to be exactly that, speculation without substance.
As you will know I have not been a big fan of many of the lockdown measures and particularly at the rate of progress out of lockdown given the spectacular success of the vaccination programme, with now over 60% of the adult population having had at least one jab. I have been concerned that the Prime Minister has been overly cautious and that not enough weight has been given to the impact of a sustained lockdown on not just the economy but of people’s livelihoods and a whole host of other knock-on effects on our mental and physical health.
The Government has a very difficult balance to strike and I am only too well aware of how exposed we are to the lapse into a third wave that is engulfing the Continent just across the Channel again. However, I believe there needs to be a bigger ‘pay-off’ with the progress of the vaccine rollout which is why I have called for more of the hospitality industry and more outdoor activities, weddings and the like to be opened up more boldly - subject to ongoing vigilance with social distancing and other measures.
I understand therefore that the Government is looking at bringing in some form of vaccination passport in order to expedite that unlocking. Many people have said that they disagree with the whole principle, that it is ‘Un-British’ and a resurrection of ID cards. I disagree with that and especially the analogy with ID cards which I have always opposed. The problem with compulsory ID cards has always been that it is the state demanding something of individuals without giving any advantage in return.
When ID cards were introduced as an emergency measure in 1939 during the last War, they were originally a means to facilitate food rationing as well as for security reasons during wartime. When rationing came to an end a few years after the war the case for ID cards was no longer there and they were eventually abolished in 1952. Interestingly over 100 countries around the world operate a form of ID cards, albeit with varying degrees of compulsion.
Other forms of ID commonly used give a benefit to the holder. A passport entitles some one to travel overseas for example. A driving licence shows you are entitled to drive and a benefit card gives you access to financial benefits. I do not believe the case to hold an ID card just for the sake of proving to authorities who you are has been made now any more than when they were last abolished.
The intention of a vaccine passport however is primarily two-fold on the basis of what the Prime Minister has now announced. Firstly, like a passport it will enable foreign travel which we all want to get back to. However, that is entirely a matter for the Governments of the country being visited and their own regulations and not within the power of the UK Government. It strikes me as a no-brainer therefore that our Government should produce some form of official document that can be presented on arrival at a foreign border to gain entry. Indeed, the Government could be accused of limiting our right of movement and being negligent if they do not facilitate such a scheme.
Secondly, vaccination certificates are being considered for gaining access to large crowd spectator events and possibly also to gain early access to certain venues where social distancing cannot be practiced or in order to do away with a requirement for social distancing altogether. In both cases there is a ‘quid pro quo’ for having a vaccine passport and the holder benefits. For those who argue that it would be a dilution of their liberty then surely having lost the right to attend a football match or enjoy a wedding with anymore than a small number of guests is a greater loss of liberty and that is the case now. If it means that I can attend events that crowds are currently barred from or being able to meet up with a larger group of friends in a pub then I see that as an advantage. Fears that vaccine passports would be required to gain entry to a pub, or a non-essential shop have quite rightly proved wide of the mark, and I did not support that.
There is also the issue of whether vaccination passports make the COVID vaccination compulsory which the Government has made clear would not be the case and I would oppose. No vaccine has been compulsory in the UK since the 19th century and only then in a limited way. The vaccination passports now being proposed give several options which is why it is not entirely accurate to refer to them as vaccine passports. You would qualify if you have had the vaccination, took a negative test either on entry or a limited time before or can show proof of antibodies.
Again, I do not think it is unreasonable that people should be expected to take a test in order to benefit from entry to a mass event where it will not be possible to be completely socially distanced. We have heard that many premises will not be able to reopen sustainably if they have severe limitations on numbers and this provides a way of opening up again, so people are free to participate. Freedom to attend an event which cannot happen because not enough people are able to attend safely doesn’t strike me as much of a freedom!
The take-up rate for the vaccine running at around 95% is remarkable and well ahead of NHS forecasts which is why we ned to speed up the opening up of things we have been denied for much of the last year. But the protection from the vaccine is not 100% and we are still unclear about how easy it is to pass the infection on even if you are vaccinated. That is why we cannot just throw all the doors open and go back to normal as if the risk level is now low enough not to worry about. That day will come and I would like the Government to give an indication of what risk level will need to be reached to get there so we can put a time limit on vaccination passports, which must only be seen as a temporary emergency measure and not a new normal to continue after the pandemic threat levels have subsided substantially albeit that is unlikely to be totally.
In the meantime, I am aware that there are some who have declined to have a vaccination for their own principled reasons. Others with medical conditions may be unable to and of course it has not yet been cleared completely for pregnant women and children, though research is ongoing. I have also heard of a couple of cases where a child has tragically, and very rarely, been harmed by a regular childhood vaccine and they have a natural fear of vaccines per se. Again, I would stress that this is incredibly rare.
Another problem with placing any vaccine passport requirement on pubs would be that we have yet to start vaccinating the under 50’s who perhaps use pubs and wine bars more than the older generation (arguable), and so they would be unfairly excluded if we relied just on the vaccination as an entry requirement given that they could not yet get it. There is also the point that most people who work in pubs tend to be under 50 and therefore there would be a distinct shortage of staff to serve you. So again the freedom to work into an unstaffed pub is not much of a freedom if there is no one to pull the pints. As it is many hospitality venues will operate a regular testing regime for their staff to make it safer for their customers.
On the basis of the above therefore I am not inclined to oppose the limited use of ‘vaccine passports’ subject to these main conditions:
- Having a vaccination is only one option to qualify so that it does not become de facto compulsory
- They are not used to access pubs, restaurants and shops where suitable social distancing can take place, and if not, then such venues would not be able to open safely at all.
- They can be used for large crowd participation where the alternative is to continue to keep spectators or guests barred completely or restricted to unsustainably small numbers.
- They are only used as a temporary emergency measure and the Government commits to a regular review of how much longer they may be needed, and appropriate risk thresholds identified.
- They will be necessary for travel to foreign countries in an official form that can be recognise and processed at ports of entry.
- They do not require providing access to other confidential personal information, such as medical records, and will not be used by Government authorities for other non COVID vaccination purposes.
As such it would appear sensible that the Government expedites work on producing a suitable scheme which is not only available in an ‘App’ form and can be linked with actual passport records, but should also be available in hard copy for those who do not have access to a smart phone.
I hope this is helpful in detailing my thinking on where the Government should be going with vaccine passports.