It’s always good to hear a government minister give a direct answer, and vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi certainly gave that on the Andrew Marr show this morning. Asked if the government was considering a vaccination passport so as to allow people, for example, to go on holiday, he said “no, we’re not. That’s not how we do things in the UK. We do them by consent.”
Yet there is a problem with raising civil liberties as a reason for rejecting the idea of vaccination passports, and I’m not convinced it is one that the government has really considered. Is anyone going to be impressed by ministers blathering on about civil liberties when the alternative might be weeks or months more suffering a far greater attack on our freedoms – ie being ordered to stay at home, banned from meeting up with friends and forbidden to go to the pub?
True, I don’t like the idea of everyone being issued with a document which we then had to present, say, when we went to the supermarket or got on a bus – and which would allow vaccine refuseniks to be banned from everyday activities if not confined to their homes forever after. But then neither do I like the way that ministers are talking about lockdown going on for many more months, with restrictions likely to remain in place all through next winter. It seems odd for the government to play up its triumph in getting further ahead in its vaccination programme than any other major country while at the same time behaving as if the vaccine will have too little effect on the progress of the epidemic to allow society to be reopened. Behave as if you have still got the virus, we are told, even when we’ve had a couple of jabs of an expensively-developed and procured vaccine.
At this rate we will win the race to vaccinate Britain – and yet still be locked down while people in other, lesser-vaccinated but slightly more risk-taking countries can visit shops, bars and carry on some semblance of normal life. It won’t seem a great victory, then. Moreover, when you are trying to persuade people to take a vaccine you need to give them hope – you need them to be able to see it as a route to freedom. We’re not going to do that if we drag our heels even about talking of lifting lockdown. The failure to provide a timetable or criteria for reopening the country risks many more people asking themselves: what’s the point in me getting vaccinated?
That is why there is such high public support for vaccination passports – polls have suggested that between 50 and 70 per cent would be in favour, with only 10 to 20 percent against. Never mind the dystopian possibilities of creating two classes of people, the vaccinated and the unvaccinated – we’re in a bigger dystopia already, where everyone’s freedom is curtailed.
There is a far more practical argument against vaccination passports. If we could vaccinate everyone this week, then fine. But imagine if we started issuing the passports tomorrow, allowing people greater freedoms from three weeks after receiving their first dose. We would suddenly have a country of liberated octogenarians while young people – who are unlikely to suffer serious harm from Covid anyway – remained in lockdown. Tea dances would recommence, cruise ships would sail – while fit and healthy 25 year olds faced another six months under stay-at-home orders.
The only real way around this is to treat Britain as a single being, which qualifies for its vaccination passport as soon as a certain proportion of the population have had their jabs. Last year I remember Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance telling us that herd immunity would not be achieved until 60 percent of the population had acquired immunity. That may be higher now with the more-transmissible Kent variant, but it is surely not 100 percent. Would Whitty and Vallance like to put a figure on it? Once we reach that figure, the epidemic would presumably decline with no restrictions in place whatsoever.
But long before then, surely, we can start to ease these measures. Already, one sixth of the population have had the vaccine. Almost as many people again appear to have acquired natural immunity. A randomised study published by the Office of National Statistics last week suggested that one in seven people tested in the 28 days to 18 January had antibodies to the virus in their blood.
We might not be there yet, but surely we are well on our way to the point where the UK as a whole can be provided with its vaccination passport. If not, it is imperative on the government to tell us why not – why the goalposts of herd immunity have been shifted.