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5 February 2021

Why we shouldn’t worry about vaccine passports

The biggest barrier to a return to "normality" is not who in the UK gets a vaccine passport first, but the pace of vaccinations in the Global South.

By Stephen Bush

The British government is preparing so-called vaccine passports to allow British holidaymakers to resume travel abroad, the Times has revealed.

The story attests to many things, not least the government’s remarkable commitment to mendacity: that vaccine passports were being considered has been repeatedly denied. (Which is bizarre, seeing as we have vaccine passports now: I have one myself, which allows me to travel into areas with high levels of yellow fever. So it would be strange, to put it mildly, if no such system were to be devised for coronavirus.) 

But, despite the outrage from some in the commentariat, the story does not signpost a future where the young are still locked down in the UK while the over-50s can jet off to Greece.

The speed and scale of the vaccine roll-out means, as it stands, the barrier to British people taking their summer holidays further afield won’t be the lack of vaccine passports at home: but the shortage of places to which one is allowed to go. 

And the biggest personal danger to those of us who are not at a high risk from coronavirus (though everyone has a degree of personal risk) is the emergence of new, deadlier variants. And while the possibility of a new variant exists in every coronavirus case, it is at its highest in people who have weakened immune systems for one reason or another.

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That’s why the biggest long-term barrier to a return to “normality” is not who gets a vaccine passport first, but the pace of vaccinations in the Global South. (The African Union’s current timetable is to have vaccinated 60 per cent of the continent in three years’ time.) 

The British government has done some good work here: it has played a key role in the Covax scheme, which will play a major part in vaccinating the Global South, and is both a founder member and the only consistent funder of all the strands of the global vaccine alliance Gavi.

But if we’re looking for real examples of iniquity, and risks to the younger generation of Brits, the concern isn’t the vaccine roll-out here or the emergence of vaccine passports, but the slowed roll-out in the Global South and the uncertain progress of vaccination programmes elsewhere.

[see also: Why pro-Europeans should be incensed about the EU’s vaccines debacle]