Parliament has voted to impose vaccine passports at selected venues, a measure – opposed by 99 Conservatives MPs – that only passed thanks to the support of the Labour Party. Vaccine passports will be ineffective, discriminatory, damage accepted liberties and create a deeply troubling precedent for future technologies. Even with the modifications introduced – notably including, sensibly, the option to display a negative test instead of evidence of vaccination – the scheme should not have been supported. The current mandate expires in January and its renewal should be opposed.
Expert, evidence-led assessments of vaccine passports have warned against their use. The government’s own assessment, conducted over the summer, found that the costs of a passporting system would be “disproportionate to the public health benefit”. The House of Commons Public Affairs Select Committee inquiry concluded that vaccine passporting was “unjustified” with the government having “failed to make the scientific case” for their use. The scheme now in operation in England does not fully meet the Royal Society’s 12 requirements for the introduction of effective vaccine passports .
In the absence of evidence, vaccine passport supporters have offered two rationales. One is to encourage vaccine uptake, as Health Secretary Sajid Javid has implied. For this, vaccine passports are unnecessary, ineffective and even counter-productive. There have been queues across the country for the booster jab as soon as the acceleration of the programme was announced in the wake of the spread of Omicron. Those already vaccinated with one shot or two don’t need further incentives to get their boosters. And with 89 per cent of over-12s in England inoculated with at least a single shot, it is only a small minority who are holding out.
Attempting to compel this minority to submit to vaccination is unlikely to work. Scotland, which introduced passes two months ago, has seen no significant increase in vaccine uptake as a result. This should not be surprising, since we are dealing with a population where vaccine acceptance is already very high. The 11 per cent remaining unvaccinated in England is likely to contain (alongside the medically exempt) only the most dedicated holdouts. If you’re still refusing a vaccine in England at this stage, the threat of not being allowed entry into a nightclub in the next few weeks isn’t likely to change your mind. Survey evidence from the UK and Israel suggests those hesitant about vaccines are likely to dig their heels in if compelled to get the jab, becoming more, not less, resistant.
Long-term public health education is the only way to shrink the minority of the unvaccinated still further. But public health budgets were cut by 24 per cent per head over 2015-19. We also know that black and minority ethnic communities in Britain are less likely to be vaccinated. The reasons for this are complex, involving a mistrust of government and health institutions, and prior experience of systemic racism. In place of close, patient and sensitive engagement with minority communities, vaccine passporting is a blunt instrument that will, in the words of the Public Administration Select Committee, “disproportionately discriminate” against those already facing discrimination.
If, on the other hand, the intention of passporting is to provide the “confidence” of safety, as shadow health secretary Wes Streeting claimed in supporting the measures, the scheme will fail. At present, passporting will be applied to larger nightclubs and similar venues, as well as outdoor events with over 4,000 in attendance. But smaller indoor venues, such as pubs, where transmission is actually more likely than outdoors, will be exempt.
Worse, given the infectiousness of Omicron, and existing vaccines’ imperfect protection against transmission of the virus, running indoor venues even with passporting is significantly likely to produce super-spreader events, as happened at the Boardmasters event in Cornwall over the summer. And of course if passporting changes people’s behaviour, fostering the illusion that they are in a “safe” environment when they are not, the risks of outbreaks further increase. This is likely to damage public trust in the certification system – but, more worryingly, by associating the ineffectiveness of vaccine passporting with the proven efficacy of the technology of vaccination, the passports risk undermining public trust in vaccinations themselves.
The anti-vax movement will welcome new recruits with open arms. It is already gathering support: although outright opposition to vaccination remains mercifully limited, it is becoming more organised especially among the far right. The anti-vaxxers have now gained a parliamentary voice of sorts in the Conservative Party opposition. Labour and the left’s abandonment of the space for reasoned opposition to the government means alternative, unreasoned opposition has been strengthened.
But both justifications – encouraging vaccine uptake and strengthening public confidence in their “safety” – miss the bigger picture. The gravest issue in vaccine distribution that we face isn’t a few holdouts in rich countries: it’s the fact that only 7 per cent of the population of low-income countries has received even one dose. The UK has ordered 650 million vaccines doses. By comparison, Covax, the World Health Organisation’s programme to share vaccines across the globe, had delivered just 280.5 million doses by September this year.
This isn’t only a demand for global justice. Leaving vast parts of the world’s population without any protection increases the risk of future variants emerging. We are seeing this already. Of the plausible origins for Omicron, its emergence as a successful mutation among an unvaccinated and previously uninfected population is likely.
It would be hard to devise a more stupid public health policy than hoarding vaccines in rich countries, demanding increasingly repressive measures to force them on their few remaining holdouts, and then failing to deliver vaccines to the huge numbers who both want and need them in the rest of the world. But that is the policy we have. “Vaccine nationalism” has blighted the world’s response to Covid, undermining public health and virtually guaranteeing that the pandemic will be prolonged as new variants emerge in under-vaccinated populations. Removing intellectual property restrictions on the production of vaccines would help, but of course the UK government has vigorously defended corporate property claims to essential scientific knowledge.
Responding to criticism, the government has been at pains to stress that lateral flow testing will be available in lieu of vaccination certification. If the intention is to promote vaccination, there is now an easy alternative to it. If the intention is to promote venue safety, vaccination status should not be relied on. Either way, however, we will have created a new infrastructure for digital surveillance, and set a precedent for the public acceptance of its use. This includes the acceptance of sudden decisions over the validity of a vaccine certificate: many would have been surprised to discover this week that their own vaccination status no longer qualified without a booster shot. The danger that this infrastructure cannot be taken down in the future is very real: as one expert told the Ada Lovelace Institute inquiry, “Once the road is built, good luck not using it.”
The government has created a sunset clause for its current legislation on 26 January. There will be the opportunity then to undo some of the damage. Past experience, however, suggests Labour is likely to nod along with any extension. But the party must recover its nerve. It opposed vaccine passports before. It should do so again.