Posted inOpinion

(Not) Learning From Europe: Vaccine Passport Edition

Back in Autumn 2020, the UK government claimed to be taking lessons from Europe on which COVID measures to adopt in order to stem rising cases – without measurable success. History repeated itself in early July. Following Emmanuel Macron’s widely criticised threat of compulsory vaccination, and introducing a wide-ranging ‘health pass’, Johnson appeared to jump on the bandwagon by announcing that from September English citizens would have to present proof of double vaccination to enter nightclubs and other ‘high risk events’. 

A problem for both Johnson and Macron is that their endorsement of vaccine passports comes after months of opposition. Even Keir Starmer, a man for whom formulating a COVID policy that materially differs from one already proposed by the government appears to be a challenge, has declared vaccine passports to be “not British”. Johnson has been vacillating on them for months, and it’s unclear what his newest U-turn actually hopes to achieve.

Opinion polls show that a majority of the UK public support the use of vaccine passports in a domestic setting, with the older (more Tory?) sections of the population even more in favour. Some might say these figures should be taken with a pinch of salt – they also suggest 20% of the population support a 10pm curfew even when COVID ceases to be an issue. Though, it’s likely the Johnson government is looking closely at them; the PM is famously concerned with what people think of him. Over in France, 100,000+ strong protests against Macron’s wider-ranging ‘health pass’ might imply people are less acquiescent, but there is support there as well. 

The argument for vaccine passports as these governments plan to use them is two-fold. Two relevant, and obvious, scientific facts are that vaccination massively reduces the risk of COVID and that clubs and other busy social settings are ideal for superspreader events. Ensuring everyone in these venues is vaccinated makes them much less risky. 

Furthermore, vaccine uptake currently appears to be lower in younger age groups in the UK (currently 35% of 18-35s are fully unvaccinated) and vaccine uptake in France has been lower overall. Making vaccination a condition of participating in social activities will (supposedly) encourage more people to get the vaccine. Thus fewer people will die of COVID and countries are more likely to achieve the ideal of herd immunity through vaccination. 

It is definitely not the case that either Boris Johnson or Emmanuel Macron want to introduce vaccine passports because Bill Gates has asked them to do so to ensure more people are vaccinated. It is also not because they are trying to hasten the dawn of a 1984-esque dystopia where the government watches every move its citizens make and arrests them for incorrect thoughts. In fact, although there are civil liberties issues with vaccine passports, the most convincing argument against them is that they simply won’t work. 

It’s true that a club or restaurant of only vaccinated people is much safer than one where some people are fully at risk of COVID, but this isn’t as relevant to the ‘vaccine passport argument’ as it might initially seem. In fact, research has shown people are less likely to take a vaccine if it’s compulsory, because they are more likely to be suspicious of the motives of the government encouraging them to take it. This is still the case even if their perception of how effective the vaccine is hasn’t changed. 

Behavioural scientists have emphasised throughout the pandemic the need to perceive fighting the virus as a collective responsibility. For the entirety of the same pandemic, the UK government has instead used coercion and blame tactics to pit the population against itself. Recall, for instance, Matt Hancock’s ‘don’t kill Granny’, or Tory officials blaming certain ethnic groups for high COVID rates in areas under local lockdowns . It’s therefore not surprising that, on balance, we haven’t had a great pandemic. 

Denying unvaccinated people access to social and cultural life is clearly intended as a freedom-restricting ‘stick’ to nudge the hesitant into accepting the jab. However, if you had deep-seated concerns about either the safety of the vaccine or the intentions of the government rolling it out, it being a requirement to participate in certain activities is unlikely to make you feel more secure. Public health is based on trust, which vaccine passports are likely to undermine.  

Although it is objectively true that the unvaccinated are more responsible for the spreading of COVID – what Joe Biden has called a ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated’ – this use of coercion is actually unlikely to work, and will instead make them more suspicious of the vaccine and further alienate them from society. This is particularly critical for minority groups in which there is already a higher degree of vaccine hesitancy – at least some of this due to legitimate historical distrust of government motives. 

While civil liberties have become rather a red flag in recent months, there are legitimate concerns beneath the paranoia of the more freedom-obsessed Tories. Many people, especially the young and healthy who have made huge sacrifices for relatively little gain, consented to onerous COVID restrictions in part because they believed them temporary. It is now scientific consensus that COVID will become endemic. Thus if vaccine passports are introduced, will they become endemic too? 

Practically, presenting a vaccine passport isn’t a particular challenge – you just need an app. Its introduction does not signify the certain death of all our freedoms, but it is a change to how we perceive the right of an individual to move through society. It’s also not clear whether new requirements to prove your health status in asserting your right to be somewhere is an outcome of the pandemic we should want – whether or not it’s difficult to do so. Vaccine passports don’t make life fairer and they probably won’t make more people get vaccinated, so what will they achieve? 

Rising cases in the UK and Europe have led to concerns over reopening. By sticking to the ‘if not now, when?’ delayed removal of all restrictions, Johnson has attracted the ire of many (this outcome was entirely predictable). If the vaccine passport scheme is a sap to the vocal elements of the scientific community who think now is not the time to open, it’s a pretty ineffective one. 

Any decision the government takes on the pandemic will be disapproved of by segments of both the scientific community and the public, who may well go on to loudly complain about it. At this point the government should have learnt to accept this. If Johnson is as staunch a defender of civil liberties as he claims to be, a scheme that more permanently restricts them without clear public health benefit is not the way forward. It would be better to build strategies based on encouraging people to work together to overcome Covid, most importantly by getting vaccinated – as advisors have been saying all along. 

It is also difficult to ignore the censorious undertones in how the nighttime industry has been treated, both in the UK and abroad. It’s definitely not beyond the realms of possibility that this arises from the perception of clubbing as a young people’s activity (aka, selfish and immoral). University students need only think back to the neglect of the past year for more hints as to how we’re perceived by this government at least. 

Conservative governments believe that members of the age bracket in which most clubbers find themselves will never vote for them. So their needs are ignored in favour of those who will, or even might, do so in the short term. And those people seem to support vaccine passports. So it comes down to the question of whether the scheme is actually about whether they’ll help at all…

If the passports are either a ham-fisted attempt to avoid criticism from parts of the scientific community or an attempt to win votes by largely shafting the young (again) then the motivations behind the programme aren’t even related to the fight against COVID. Scientists aren’t exactly giving it a ringing endorsement either. So what is the point?