Papers, please: immunity IDs are on the way

Where will vaccine passports lead?

13 February 2021

9:00 AM

13 February 2021

9:00 AM

Do you remember normality? A busy diary. Holidays, parties, pubs. Who hasn’t looked back and wondered how we can return to that life which now seems so free. Sacrifices have been inevitable. After a year in and out of lockdown, are we ready to make some more?

The Covid vaccines promise freedom, or at least some version of it according to government ministers. By the end of next month, if the vaccine rollout continues at its current rate, all over-50s will have been offered their first jab. The Prime Minister has assured us that ‘things will be very different by the spring’. Matt Hancock has promised a ‘happy and free’ summer — or, as he’s careful to say, ‘British summer’. If we want to go abroad, that might be a different matter. But all this potential freedom isn’t entirely free — it could very well depend on whether we can prove we’ve had the jab.  

The Prime Minister of Greece, whose economy depends on holidaymakers, has proposed a system of vaccine passports, a global ID card scheme which identifies the vaccinated. His logic is simple and compelling: vaccines speed up the return to normal life. A system of immunisation passports could get us flying again. He’d like the EU to oversee it.

Denmark will start issuing vaccine passports this month, followed by Sweden, where identity cards and ‘personal numbers’ are already ubiquitous. Israel has introduced a ‘green pass’ for those who can prove their immunity status, which grants them access to shopping centres, gyms and museums. Joe Biden has asked for an evaluation of a vaccine ID scheme for Americans. Spain, Italy, Cyprus and Malta — all desperate to revive tourism — are in favour of vaccine passports. All they need is for other governments to give them the go-ahead.

But the application of vaccine passports will inevitably extend far beyond holidays. The safety-first mentality could spread into almost every area of modern life. One of the most appalling tragedies of the pandemic was the failure to protect the elderly in care homes. There’s a clear moral case for those who work with the elderly to be able to prove they’ve been vaccinated. Hospitals can make the same argument. But convincing proof can only be issued by the NHS — or, rather, the government. Without its backing, a vaccine passport system will never get off the ground. When it does, there’s no telling where it will lead.

The government knows this is murky territory and has so far tried to distance itself from suggestions that vaccine IDs are on the way. In November, vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi floated the idea of immunity passports to gain access to ‘bars, restaurants, cinemas’. The business case is easy to see. Why run a socially distanced bistro with half the normal number of tables if you can pack it full of diners who flash their vaccine ID to gain entry? But when it was pointed out that this would require immuno-bouncers at the door, Zahawi backtracked and ruled it out.

The idea keeps returning, however. Last month, it was revealed that £450,000 worth of government grants have been given to at least eight schemes focused on developing some type of digital immunity documentation. That is a lot of money to spend on something we’re told is not going to happen. This month, officials started work on a certification system for British travellers. Anyone who has received their jab could be given a QR code, allowing them to leave the country. This week, the international airline trade body IATA announced it was having ‘very fruitful’ discussions with the British government on a prototype app which would allow travellers to prove their vaccination status. Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, then disclosed that he was in talks with the US, Singapore and the UN’s aviation body about an international vaccine certification system.

The government seems to be developing vaccine passports by stealth, making sure the technology is in place for anyone who needs it. A phone app designed by the firm Logifect (which has received £62,000 in government grants) is due to launch next month and would allow British citizens to show confirmation of their vaccines. Two other companies — iProov and Mvine — have received a £75,000 grant for their work on digital ‘certificates’ that would allow people to prove their immunity when asked. But it’s not as if the crucial bit of technology required for vaccine passports doesn’t already exist. It’s probably in your pocket right now. Your phone would most likely be your vaccination passport. Everyone’s vaccination status is already being logged centrally by the National Immunisation Vaccination System using their NHS number. This information could be easily linked with an app.

The next step could well be a ‘no jab, no job’ policy, through which the unvaccinated could be denied employment. Pimlico Plumbers in London has been the first to declare it will adopt such a policy. ‘We won’t be employing people in the future unless they’ve got a vaccine,’ said its founder, Charlie Mullins. No. 10 later said this would be ‘discriminatory’. Quite. But is it illegal? That’s the crucial, still unanswered question.

It is discriminatory for Qantas to say it will not allow unvaccinated people to fly on their aircraft — but its chief executive has already done so. It is also discriminatory for Saga Cruises to stipulate that ‘all guests must be fully vaccinated’ and ready to provide ‘a vaccination document as proof’. But unless such discrimination is ruled out under the law, we can expect more of it. Saga and Qantas simply want to make their passengers feel safe from the teeming masses who haven’t yet had a vaccine.

For those pining for the return of business travel, vaccine passports make complete sense. Tony Blair, no stranger to an airport lounge, has emerged as a leading advocate. ‘You will want something that declares your disease status,’ he said recently, because that will be ‘essential to restoring confidence’. The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has come out with its own ‘Global Covid Travel Pass’ manifesto. It is strikingly reminiscent of his 2004 plan to introduce identity cards when he was prime minister. The moral quandary is the same: is vaccine ID a harmless tool which creates a safer society — or a sudden expansion of a surveillance state?

The British have traditionally been deeply suspicious of the idea of an official asking for ‘papers, please’, which is why there was such a backlash against Blair’s ID cards. As one journalist at the time put it: ‘If I am ever asked to produce my ID card as evidence that I am who I say I am, when I have done nothing wrong and when I am simply ambling along and breathing God’s fresh air like any other freeborn Englishman, then I will take that card out of my wallet and physically eat it in the presence of whatever emanation of the state has demanded that I produce it.’ That journalist is now our Prime Minister. It would be an extraordinary turn of events if Boris Johnson ended up being the man who introduced an immunity identity system in Britain.

It is not irrational to worry about vaccine passports: the technology, once created, can be put to all kinds of malign uses. Their existence fundamentally changes the relationship between individual and state. But as the pandemic has continued, sweeping decisions have been taken with minimal debate. Given how many changes we have seen in recent months, it is easy to imagine a UK immuno-certificate being rolled out by the summer.

At first, it would just be a glorified doctor’s note, to help you get on that longed-for flight to Greece. Later, it could exist to ‘reassure’ your employer. The concern is that before long your freedom to move, to work, to do anything beyond sitting in your house may depend on whether or not you have had the latest Covid vaccine (be it Oxford, Pfizer, Moderna or another). The vaccine will give you more than just the prospect of immunity; it will grant you immuno–privilege. Freedom could be determined by the characteristics of your blood: good blood and bad blood.

Polls say that about 85 per cent of British adults are ‘likely’ to take up the offer of a jab, but 15 per cent have concerns. People who can’t have a vaccine for medical reasons might be granted an exemption. But will the wishes of others be taken into consideration, their rights protected, their religious views respected, if vaccine documentation is brought in? Inevitably it will be those already on the edges of society — people who often avoid contact with the authorities — who are pushed out further by the need to prove their immunological status. Vaccine refuseniks, according to Zahawi, ‘skew heavily towards BAME communities’ which raises the prospect of vaccine passports deepening racial divisions — particularly if the government decides to grant certain exemptions.

Right now, debate has been muted. Who wants to be accused of being ‘anti-vax’ or told that they are putting lives at risk? Meanwhile, the technology continues to develop at pace. Systems that we willingly use to document every moment of our lives are now being commandeered to keep track of our health status. Covid results are sent by text message. An NHS app can ‘ping’ us with an instruction to self-isolate.

We don’t even have to imagine where this might lead: we need only look at China. Just as it pioneered lockdown, it is now blazing ahead with digital identification. A health colour code exists: green allows a person to move around freely, enter offices and shops, and take public transport. Yellow or red will deny them entry. The code is based on location data taken from individuals’ phones, as well as self-reported information. Data is also shared with the police. ‘We need to further harmonise policies and standards and establish ‘fast tracks’ to facilitate the orderly flow of people,’ said President Xi Jinping, as he called for a ‘global mechanism’ to enable international travel. That must be music to Blair’s ears.

Anyone who considers such systems sinister and authoritarian may soon find themselves in a vanishingly small minority. A recent Bristol University study found that almost two thirds of the British population are in favour of immunity passports, making them almost as popular as lockdown. Just 20 per cent were strongly opposed: a figure that Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, who conducted the study, described as ‘surprisingly low’, suggesting greater public acceptance of ‘privacy–encroaching technologies’. Maybe we’re not actually that far behind China, despite what we like to tell ourselves about our old-fashioned love of liberty.

We’ll no doubt be encouraged to see all these biosecurity measures as a consumer choice. And perhaps we’ll be happy to hand over increasing amounts of private information if it grants us the freedom to fly, shop or eat out. Some dating apps now ask users: ‘Will you get the Covid-19 vaccine?’ Vaccinated/not vaccinated appears with increasing frequency on dating profiles — much like smoker/non-smoker does. Society is already carving itself up into the jabs and jab-nots.

The government could just end up giving the people what they want. Whether or not this counts as a return to the freedom we once knew is a different question altogether.

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