We need to talk about vaccine passports

Dominic Roberts
Hello, my name is Dominic Roberts and welcome to my blog! When I am not busy creating YouTube videos from my parent's basement, I enjoy keeping active by running and cycling, writing articles, hanging out with family and friends, and travelling across the world to explore new places and cultures.

I called it last year. I knew that the rhetoric surrounding vaccine uptake would start to ramp up and become more aggressive as we slowly start to remove the shackles of the lockdown restrictions and roll out the vaccine to all adults, and sure enough it has. In the beginning, if you didn’t want to take the vaccine, or you were undecided, then you just needed some polite and empathetic education on the matter from health professionals, celebrities and royalty. However, we have now reached the extraordinary position where education of the non-vaccinated is not a strong enough conformity enforcer. No, they need to be punished into conformity by the private sector through the use of coercive vaccine passports.

It is always worth repeating, if anything to preempt the predicable anti-vax accusations, that being anti-vaccine passport is not the same as being anti-vaccine. I would always defend and support the right of anyone to take the vaccine, but I would equally defend and support the right of anyone to refuse the vaccine and to be free from coercive forces like vaccine passports. People must have total agency over their own bodies, and if we dare to cross that line, then whatever next? Below I have outlined what I believe to be the strongest arguments against vaccine passports and why it is a road that we do not want to go down under any circumstances.

It’s discriminatory and coercive

Let’s start with the obvious. The introduction of vaccine passports as a so called “route to liberty” would risk the creation of a two-tier society of the haves and the have-nots, and it is a flagrant attack on individual choice. It is also a horrendous form of coercion, where you are perfectly entitled to refuse the vaccine, but as a consequence of that decision you won’t be allowed into supermarkets, shops, pubs, clubs, restaurants, cinemas, festivals, etc, and so you have no choice but to take the vaccine you never wanted just to partake in society again. Some vaccine passport proponents on Twitter have gone even further than that, and would be happy to see the non-vaccinated punished by having their treatment on the NHS refused. Some employers are also relishing the opportunity to make vaccination a mandatory requirement of employment, both for existing staff and new recruits.

The vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi made previous assurances that the UK has “no plan of introducing a vaccine passport” and even echoed concerns that the technology would be “discriminatory”. But like many other important decisions during the pandemic, they have decided to make yet another U turn and they now think that vaccine passports are worthy of a review. Thankfully for those of us who don’t want to live in a totalitarian state, a petition against the rollout of vaccine passports has amassed over 200,000 signatures, and as such it will be considered for debate in parliament. Perhaps our fears about domestic vaccine passports are overblown, as some have suggested, but if history has taught us anything, it’s that once we give up our hard-won rights, it can be harder to get them back.

If you are vaccinated then what risk am I to you?

I keep asking this question, and I never seem to get a good answer to it. Let’s say an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman walk in to a bar (without masks on, hurrah!). The Scotsman and the Irishman have been vaccinated, but the Englishman has not. How is the Englishman a risk to the Scotsman or the Irishman, or any other vaccinated person in the bar for that matter? The answer that most proponents of a vaccine passport provide to this question is that the vaccine is not 100% effective at protecting against transmission and so a health and safety risk still exists, but this begs the question. If that is the case, how can you justify a vaccine passport on health and safety grounds? Even if future research finds that the vaccine does in fact help in some way to reduce transmission, that still doesn’t make the ethical and moral implications of a vaccine passport magically disappear.

We don’t have vaccine passports for other pathogens

We know that the coronavirus is way worse than the flu, both in terms of illness severity and transmissibility, but we also know that the flu alone kills thousands of people every year, yet we have never entertained the idea of a vaccine passport to prove our flu vaccination status. But hang on a moment. Surely, if we are wedded to the idea of community responsibility and protecting the nation’s health and safety, wouldn’t a vaccine passport necessarily have to extend to vaccination against other pathogens like the flu as well? At the bottom of this slippery slope, you would eventually be required to display a full health passport detailing every vaccination and medical procedure you have ever had, just to get your bread and milk from the supermarket! There’s a good reason we don’t do this, and a vaccine passport should be no exception.

Vaccine passports are nothing like other forms of identification

An increasingly popular defence of vaccine passports, especially on Twitter, is that we are required to carry and show identification to do certain societal activities, such as having a driving licence to operate a motor vehicle, and that a vaccine passport is just another version of this, so what’s the problem? Well, I can think of a few. Aside from the ridiculous and offensive comparison between a driving licence and a vaccine passport in the first place, there’s also the fact that one goes much further than the other. Without a driving licence, you won’t be able to operate a motor vehicle. Without a vaccine passport, you potentially won’t be allowed into supermarkets, shops, pubs, clubs, restaurants, cinemas, festivals, and you might find it extremely difficult or even impossible to get a job.

What about future variants and exemptions?

One aspect of the proposed vaccine passport that gets widely overlooked is the question of how it will deal with future variants of the coronavirus. It is likely that people will need to have annual vaccinations against the latest variants of the coronavirus, as is the case with the flu vaccine, so how will the vaccine passport, digital or otherwise, be able to keep up? Let’s say in the future that there is a French variant and a German variant of the coronavirus. Can you imagine a situation where for instance a pub let’s someone in who is vaccinated against the French and German variants but refuses someone who is only vaccinated against the French variant? Also, how will vaccine passports deal with exemptions from future vaccinations, like in the case of pregnancies, allergies, and so on? Managing future variants and exemptions through a vaccine passport would prove to be a complete nightmare and would inevitably end up in chaos!

Featured image by Aleksej and used under the standard license.