When the Prime Minister mentioned ‘Covid status certification’ as part of his route back to normal life, one man must have enjoyed the moment. For Tony Blair it was yet one more little victory in his UK comeback tour, made all the sweeter because Boris Johnson was once a principal opponent of the idea of any ID card system.
Blair has been pushing vaccine passports like nobody’s business. A recent paper published by his Institute for Global Change advocated that we carry ‘digital health passports’ on our smartphones, which we could scan on entry to bars, theatres and other places. If you don’t have a smartphone, the paper suggested, the venue could take a photo of you instead, and check it against a database of people who have been vaccinated. ‘The public is increasingly comfortable with the trade-off between protecting our civil liberties and protecting our health,’ it asserted, going on to list several apps and app developers which it claims are already working on suitable products.
This is the kind of stuff which used to make Johnson go off his chump. When he was editor of this magazine — and Blair was pushing his identity cards bill through the Commons — Johnson threatened to eat any identity card he was forced to produce. In April 2004 The Spectator carried a piece by Peter Hitchens in which he wrote that the introduction of ID cards ‘would signal the end of privacy — and of England’. While Johnson this week appointed Michael Gove to look into the ‘scientific, moral, philosophical and ethical’ issues concerning vaccine passports, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Blair is having a very hearty last laugh.
It is not just ID cards. Blair seems to be — or has managed to give the impression of — driving Covid policy on several fronts. While Margaret Thatcher boasted of being John Major’s backseat driver, she never dissuaded him from, say, signing the Maastricht Treaty. Blair, on the other hand, has managed to get his claws into the heart of government — and a Conservative government at that.
Early last month, Blair appeared on the airwaves advocating that the government delay second jabs so as to speed up the delivery of first injection. The practice became government policy soon afterwards, in spite of Pfizer warning that there was no data to show the efficacy of its vaccine other than for a system of two doses, three weeks apart.
Then there was mass testing. Blair first raised the possibility of testing ‘virtually everybody’ in an interview with Sky News on 29 March last year. His institute proceeded to put out a series of reports advocating mass regular testing. One of them, from July, implored the government ‘to foster collaboration between partners and to introduce “moonshots” — high-risk, high-reward innovations that don’t yet exist but which would change the game on testing’. The wording is intriguing because six weeks later the Prime Minister launched ‘Operation Moonshot’ — a mass testing regime that would see the entire population tested at regular intervals.
But is Blair really feeding the government’s ideas — or is he doing a Keir Starmer in publicly recommending things which the government was considering anyway? The latter was suggested by a Mail on Sunday report last weekend which claimed that Matt Hancock had stopped talking to Blair, furious that the ex-PM had been trying to pass off the government’s thinking as his own. An associate of Hancock’s was quoted: ‘Matt was briefing Blair as a courtesy to a previous prime minister. But he cottoned on that Blair was milking these conversations.’
All of which makes you wonder whether Blair’s interest in Covid is partly an advertisement for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, his sprawling think tank which brought together his Faith Foundation and his other interests, such as his controversial work with Kazakhstan dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev, an arrangement which involved offering PR advice after the country’s police shot dead 15 protestors in 2011. The institute’s financial statements reveal an organisation that has become a leviathan among think tanks. It records an income of $46.3 million in 2019, says that it employs 231 staff and works in 14 African nations, as well as the UK, US, eastern Europe and the Middle East.
And aside from whether Blair’s ideas on Covid really are his, are they any good? The government’s decision to delay second doses of Covid vaccines can certainly claim to be a success, for now. Data on the AstraZeneca vaccine indicates that it is more effective when the second dose is delayed for 12 weeks. Data on the Pfizer vaccine suggests that a single dose is effective after four weeks but we know little beyond that.
As for mass testing, that has run into the ground, after the lateral flow tests used in a pilot scheme in Liverpool were found to produce large numbers of false negatives — 50 per cent when used in the community, according to a study by the University of Liverpool. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister announced on Monday that secondary pupils returning to school from 8 March will be tested twice weekly.
It is not hard to see why there are so many app developers keen on pushing digital health passports of the kind Blair advocates. Their interests go well beyond recording our vaccination status: as with any free app, the real purpose is to collect reams of data on our health and lifestyles in order to sell us gym membership, health food, private health care and the like.
But if the industry — with Blair’s bidding — is hoping to use Covid as an excuse to persuade us to share our medical data, it has a very big problem. As we know, the people who have been refusing the vaccine are disproportionately from ethnic minorities: only 37 per cent of black healthcare workers in Leicester have had the jab, compared with 71 per cent of white ones. If the government does take up Blair’s idea, we are rapidly going to find ourselves looking a bit like apartheid-era South Africa, with black people disproportionately being turned away from bars, theatres, nightclubs and shops.
The public is increasingly comfortable with the idea of vaccine passports, claims Blair. That might need revisiting if we actually end up having the things. It could just remind people why Blair’s illiberal control-freakery made him unpopular in his first incarnation.
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