The problem with ‘immunity passports’

The many dangers of ‘immunity passports’

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

5 December 2020

9:00 AM

Just a few months ago it was not certain that we would find a vaccine for Covid-19. Now, we have three, with potentially more on the way — and the rollout of the Pfizer jab due to begin next week. It’s an extraordinary achievement for the research community, our best hope of restoring normal life and a bloody relief after a year of disappointments. But the government, at least, should beware of geeks bearing gifts. To get us to herd immunity, they have to persuade somewhere between 60 per cent to 90 per cent of us to get vaccinated.

You can see Boris Johnson’s problem. If he makes vaccination completely voluntary, we may never hit the target we need for herd immunity. It’s not just anti-vaxxers. Some people who are usually amenable to vaccines will worry about a ‘rushed’ new one, and fear that the speed of its development means corners were cut. Others may not wish to take the vaccine offered by the government if they believe one of the others on the market, or on the way, will be more effective. The Oxford/AstraZeneca with its 70 per cent effectiveness rate is so last season, darling. Everyone’s going 95 per cent gene-based Moderna this year. (Or they would be if it was on offer — given how few Britain has ordered, it is unlikely to be.) People holding out for a vaccine of choice could cause delays. So what to do?

Enter Nadhim Zahawi, a Tory MP who was set to rebel over this week’s tier vote until he was given the new job of minister for vaccine delivery. He’s a Cameroon-era MP who came of political age when the ‘nudge unit’ was at large, thinking of ways to change behaviour without passing laws. He has started floating the idea of cinemas, pubs and other venues creating a system by which people can socialise in ways the tier system would not normally allow — if they can prove they’ve had the vaccine.

This opens the door to a system whereby government uses vaccination to decide in what ways citizens are allowed to be involved in which parts of society. The Prime Minister has tried to give his reassurance that making vaccines compulsory is ‘not the way we do things in this country’. But if airlines, pubs and cinemas started to make them compulsory at the suggestion of his government, that’s presumably OK.

The first problem with this should be glaringly obvious: someone would have to provide verifiable information of who had been vaccinated. That would need to be the government, likely via the NHS. Dido Harding has floated the prospect that her white-elephant £12 billion NHS Test and Trace app could used for this purpose, which would mean transforming an app every Brit was assured would protect their privacy and anonymity into a health passport they might have to show before ordering a beer.

The Prime Minister, in typical amiable-buffoon mode, seems quite keen on framing immunity certificates as ‘freedom passes’, as innocuous as pensioners’ bus passes. If a piece of paper will let you go to a bar, visit the theatre or go to a football match, how could it be anything but a good thing — says the logic that ignores that before coronavirus, people could do all of these without having to show their government-issued papers.

When David Blunkett proposed identity cards back in 2004, Johnson said he’d rather eat one than show it when requested. He quoted the 1964 US Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater to the effect that ‘extremism in defence of liberty is no vice’. Now he seems to have ambled into becoming a vocal advocate of an even more intrusive form of ID card, one that shares not only our identity but also our health information. It would be the cornerstone of a new biosecurity state.

Modern technology makes casual state intrusion into our daily lives easier than it has ever been in history. But it doesn’t change the rights and wrongs of any of it. Even if you care not one iota about civil liberties, you can still see the dangers in what’s being proposed here. For one, there is an uncomfortable precedent in requiring people to prove their health or vaccination status before they can access public life. At what point should that stop? No access to schools for unvaccinated pupils? Routine tests for flu before getting the Tube? Why not an app showing a verified set of your latest STD results before you can have a government-sanctioned fling?

The final, grim truth of ‘immunity passports’ is they’re not even all that likely to work — not least because they are the absolute confirmation of what the most fervent anti-vaccination protestors have always warned about. If the government suddenly tries to make vaccines a condition of public life, that plays into every conspiracy theory about mass vaccination currently spreading like wildfire online. It is generally not a good idea for anyone to prove such people ‘right’, especially not on such a vital issue. The more extreme fringes of the anti-vax movements warn that vaccines would contain the mark of the devil, or some form of surveillance chip.

Tying vaccination into a government-run tracking app, and making it a requirement of engaging in public, risks turning a movement of dangerous cranks into this generation’s civil liberties freedom fighters. Worse still, it risks radicalising people currently unsure about a vaccine into being absolutely sure they don’t want one.

We should be sympathetic to the government, which is facing a huge challenge, and one prone to frustrations. It could be that developing the vaccine is the easy part compared with persuading enough people to actually receive it. But that’s the job ministers have now signed up for, and they owe the public better than making up poorly thought-through policy live on air.

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