The vexing question of vaccine passports

Our civil liberties are at stake, argues Alex McBride

vaccine passport

I love passports. I don’t care what colour they are. It’s what they can do that counts. I have, through accident of birth, acquired so many I could arrange them like flying ducks on the wall. Leave with one. Arrive with another. No visas. No queues. Beautiful. I know I’m not alone in my weakness for international travel documents. There’s nothing quite like snapping down your ace-in-the-hole like an ambassador plenipotentiary in front of a border official in an unfamiliar uniform, even though you’ve just landed in Lodz, Poland on a £9.99 ticket from Southend.

The Government knows how seductive we find passports, how we associate them with green-channelled “nothing to declare”, going on holiday and a clean bill of health. They have buy-in. With a successful vaccine programme well underway, infections falling fast, and lockdown restrictions starting to ease, the Government is considering plans to use passports to enable holders to gain entry to pubs and restaurants while limiting the risk of Covid infections spreading. They could even become mandatory for accessing certain jobs.

They won’t, of course, be actual passports but data records embedded in an app with a QR code that can be scanned to show you’ve been vaccinated and are, in theory, virus free. A similar “green pass” system is already used in Israel. After repeated lockdowns, each more awful than the last, anything to hasten our old lives back feels like a no-brainer. And yet there’s a lingering sense I have missed some political sleight of hand – especially with this government’s record on buying off the masses. Remember the claims: it’ll all be over by July; we’ll have a “world beating” test and trace app by September. Remember Rishi Sunak’s demented, calamitous “Eat Out to Help Out”, which contributed to the re-spread of the virus and thousands more avoidable deaths.

We, just like the Government, have found it hard to face up to the reality of the virus. Inconveniently, Covid is an airborne pathogen, which means people congregating in shops, offices and other enclosed spaces are at serious risk of infecting each other. Good news for the virus. Bad news for clubbable humans. The World Health Organisation’s strategy of zero Covid – suppressing the virus and keeping it suppressed – has been an unpalatable one to follow. We’ve locked down too late and re-opened too early. Now, with Covid  passports on the near horizon, the danger is we’ll grab them as if they were a magic, virus-destroying wand, which zaps away all risk.

The pressure to re-open is not just so we can bank some fun. The economy is in bad shape. Hospitality and retail teeter on the brink, threatening thousands of jobs. Covid passports add fuel to the argument that it is imperative to re-open economic activity quickly. Vulnerable people can shield while the rest of us rub along with the virus. This is dangerous. Structurally, Covid is very different from the common cold coronaviruses, which don’t cause serious illness and death. Its spike protein has a “super antigen motif ” found in viruses like Ebola and HIV. Super antigens throw your immune system into overdrive, which can lead to severe, drawn out illness. Long Covid, which occurs in all age groups, including children, can leave fit 45-year-olds unable to climb the stairs and their vital organs permanently damaged. We can’t let it be endemic.

Another factor that should make us hesitate over passports is the amazingly wide range of opposition against them, from extreme Covid sceptics to IndieSage (the independent group of UK scientists who’ve set up their own SAGE). Keir Starmer has said vaccine passports for pubs go against the “British instinct”. His objection recalls the battle against Tony Blair’s proposals for ID cards, which were meant to protect us from terrorism. Those in power always find a good reason to limit the public’s freedom. Sure, they’ll say it’s temporary, but once they have your health details they can scrape it and sell the data on. There’s lots of ways it could be used against you, by private companies, or the Government itself. Who’s to say it will stop at Covid, and other health data won’t be added on? It’s easy to dismiss anti-vaxxers and Covid deniers, as well as the libertarian right, who incorrectly claimed the virus wouldn’t muster a second wave. But the same can’t be said of those who didn’t try to play things down.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission argues that passports which restrict access to jobs and recreation probably breach anti-discrimination laws. Lawyer and Labour peer, Shami Chakrabati, criticises Covid passports over basic fairness because they will disproportionately penalise the young, the poor and ethnic minorities, who are less likely to be vaccinated. These are very new vaccines and it has not yet been fully established that they are safe for children – who are at very low risk from Covid – to take them. At the very least, it must be right that passports should not be available until everyone has been offered a vaccine.

I’d argue it goes further than passport fairness. The pandemic has underlined gross inequality in Britain. Covid passports mustn’t be allowed to cement a two-tier society where the middle-aged, middle classes who have stayed safe “WFH” are allowed to go out and whoop it up, while the younger, poorer and non-white, with riskier jobs and worse housing, aren’t. It’s easy to foresee a Titanic-esque “I’m in the lifeboat, push off!” hypocrisy, with the less fortunate being denigrated for trying to have a social life without passports. Meanwhile, those with an official stamp debauch themselves on the sly. You can get away with a lot in a four-bedroom semi: you start in the garden six feet apart with the best intentions, a few bevvies later you’re in the kitchen with your arm around your new best mate’s shoulder, a few more – it’s sardines in a Furniture Village wardrobe with eight total strangers and the French au pair from next door.

Covid passports mustn’t be allowed to cement a two-tier society where the middle aged, middle classes who have stayed safe “WFH” are allowed to go out and whoop it up, while the younger, poorer and non-white, with riskier jobs and worse housing, aren’t

The most compelling argument against Covid passports, of course, is that they won’t work. Dr Zubaida Haque of IndieSage thinks vaccine immunity alone will not be enough to suppress the virus. She calls for a robust test and trace system run locally by people who know the area in which they work, not a centralised white elephant headed by a political appointee. It can be done. An outbreak of the South African variant in South London was successfully contained by Lambeth Council health workers. For test and trace to work it needs proper financial support for self-isolation or people will not comply. The Covid-19 Rapid Survey of Adherence to Interventions and Responses study found only 52% self-isolated, presumably because the other half needed to keep working to pay the bills.

The other thing that undermines the vaccine programme and Covid passports are our international borders. Haque says they “leak like a sieve”. She’s got a point. Every day ten to fifteen thousand people pass through Heathrow alone. The pictures of queues snaking around the arrival hall, red list countries rubbing up against non-red list countries, are terrifying. The list system has been slow to update. India, with terrible Covid numbers, has only recently been put on the red list of countries which require official hotel-based quarantine. It’s clear the Government is making the same sort of mistakes as last year.

Ultimately, Covid passports are only as effective as the vaccines they record. The virus, mutating as it spreads, can outrun the current crop if other measures are not in place. In December 2020, the Kent variant was nowhere in Europe but now it is one of the dominant strains. Fortunately, vaccines work well against it. The same is not true for other variants spreading breakneck around the globe. An Israeli study of 150 people found that the South African variant is already breaking through Pfizer, leaving you eight times more likely to get Covid than the original strain. AstraZeneca is only 10% effective. These new variants are more virulent too. The Indian one is now infecting over 250,000 people every day.

Covid passports might play some sort of limited role, but only if we do other, more important things properly as well. Are they really worth the danger to civil liberties or the hassle? The old normal of international travel and go-where-you-please remains a way off. My own over-entitled passport larks will have to wait. We’re all going to have to settle for a new, more constricted normal. I don’t know about you, but after last year I’m going to grab it with both hands.

Alex McBride is a writer and criminal barrister. He is the author of Defending the Guilty, and co-creator of the BBC2 comedy of the same name. He also writes for BBC1’s crime drama, The Mallorca Files

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