On Monday 5 April, after several weeks of speculation, the government announced that it would begin trialling vaccine (or “Covid status”) passports for certain events in mid-April, deepening its authoritarian reach into people’s lives under the guise of public health. Perhaps surprisingly, we’ve also seen left wing commentators liken it to showing a driver's licence to get into a club. It isn’t yet clear what Labour will do, despite glaring issues with the move.
One of the most obvious objections is the bureaucratic nightmare expected to ensue. The government’s track record on delivering nationwide schemes during the pandemic, from PPE procurement to test and trace, is abysmal, driven by their obsession with outsourcing rather than public health benefit. The vaccination programme has succeeded because of the NHS, and in spite of the government’s involvement.
We can expect the vaccine passport rollout to be handed over to Tory cronies as soon as possible. Additionally, despite trials beginning mid-April, the government has yet to answer the question of what format the passports will take. The existing NHS test and trace app would need to be completely overhauled, while vaccine cards supplied thus far are so easy to fake you might as well not bother.
Had the government put serious thought into solving this ahead of 30 million adults receiving vaccinations, perhaps they might have managed it. Now, it’s far too late to be rolled out with any measure of success.
Logistical questions however, distract from two broader principles: the creation of a two-tier society and the increasing surveillance of the state. As it stands, the vast majority of people who have been vaccinated are over 50, but what about those of us who are still waiting our turn in the vaccine queue? What about those who cannot receive the vaccine due to being immunocompromised? What about the significant number of people shut out of the healthcare system due to immigration status, concerns over interacting with the state, or an unstable housing situation?
Vaccine passports will create yet another internal border that forms part of the hostile environment, and punishes a whole section of the population who haven’t been offered, or are physically unable to have, the vaccine. This is a terrible approach to public health.
We should also be resisting increases in individual surveillance methods by the state as a matter of principle. To start with, there’s no timeframe for how long these measures might last for, what else they might be used to restrict access to such as employment or public spaces outside of large scale events, or what the long term implications might be.
This is a government that wants to ban “annoying” protests, imprison refugees offshore. It has spent much of the pandemic blaming the public for spreading Covid while doing the barest possible minimum to support those who caught it. We should not trust them to implement more restrictions in a way that benefits public health rather than using it as an excuse for yet another power grab.
And there’s no guarantee that the measure will even have a net benefit to public health that outweighs the costs in civil liberties and cash. The use of the passports is at least theoretically limited to large public gatherings, such as one-off sporting events, or nightclubs, or international travel, leaving everyone free to mingle in indoor venues such as schools, restaurants, offices and supermarkets regardless of “Covid status”, on a regular basis once things reopen in May.
What impact will attempts to limit transmission in certain rare settings, but not more common ones, have on Covid cases? Honestly, we don’t know.
It’s also unclear whether the passports will even offer a return to international travel, given the high levels of both vaccine nationalism and hesitancy across the globe. There are already rumours that China will only accept vaccination certificates for Chinese vaccines, while it’s hard to imagine the US allowing those vaccinated using a Russian or Chinese vaccine to skip self-isolation.
Different vaccines have also shown varying levels of efficacy against emerging variants: if you’re vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine, would South Africa let you in, given it’s less effective against the prevalent strain?
All of this before we consider the gender inequalities, what happens to children, the lack of certainty about the durability of protection from vaccination or prior infection, and other explorations of social inequities that would likely be compounded. Covid-status passports are completely different from lockdowns that affect the entire population and we should think twice before ceding more power to monitor individuals to the state.