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Power or Protection: Vaccine Passports

Ziryan Aziz explores the arguments for and against the introduction of vaccine passports in the UK.

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Photo by Hakan Nural

On Monday the 19th of June, Boris Johnson announced the long-awaited ‘Freedom Day’, which saw the removal of all legal requirements for common covid rules. Rules such as wearing a mask indoors, social distancing, and handwashing are now purely a matter of internal policy for businesses and institutions.

However, after a last-minute diversion, the government announced that venues and spaces hosting “large crowds” would require “proof of double vaccination” come the 16th of August. Now available on the NHS app, the ‘covid pass’ will enable vaccinated users to access these spaces that are currently unavailable to the unvaccinated.

The news has caused a stir for some, both politically and publicly. A petition against introducing Covid vaccine passports was signed by over 375,000 people, and 79 MPs across the political spectrum have signed a declaration against introducing vaccine passports.

There are several ethical and legal challenges brought about by the introduction of vaccine passports:

Reasons Against Vaccine Passports

1. Division

Introducing passports effectively creates a two-tier society, in which only the vaccinated will have access to certain activities and employment opportunities.

Furthermore, taking into consideration that black and South Asian communities in the UK have the lowest uptake of the vaccination amongst all ethnic demographics, inadvertently excluding ethnic minorities could cause further widening of divisions within the country.

This also raises the question of legality. If someone were to be denied, e.g., employment on the grounds that they were not fully jabbed, is this a form of discrimination? A lot of the questions are still being asked about how the vaccine passport still adheres to the rules set within the Equality Act (2010), particularly in potential cases of age discrimination, especially since many younger people have only recently been given the opportunity to get vaccinated and many come under an extremely low risk group.

2. Privacy

Vaccine passports could set a precedent for a further invasion of our right to confidentiality when it comes to our personal medical information. If society were to become accustomed to the idea of requiring personal health information to be made public, people may be required to disclose other diseases or conditions they have in the future, which infringes on democratic rights to privacy. What’s more, given that covid passports will be predominantly electronic, there are questions on how safe our personal data is to potential fraud.

3. Science

One of the overarching issues with the vaccine passport is that they may become obsolete when a new variant of the virus becomes prevalent. Whilst it’s undisputed that the current vaccines provide protection from serious illness and mortality, they do not stop transmission. If the government allows for vaccinated people to congregate in areas deemed safe, the virus could still pose a threat by being passed on to vulnerable individuals.

An example can be seen in Israel, a country praised for its rapid vaccination program, but last month saw a spike in covid cases and a drop in the Pfizer vaccine efficacy rate, due to the delta variant.

4. Poor Consistency

Internationally, there is no standardised vaccine passport that can cover all demands for each country, regarding the type of vaccine countries, are willing to accept for entry. For example, the European Union, which has its own vaccine passport, does not recognise the Indian-produced AstraZeneca vaccine, Canada doesn’t recognise two Chinese-based vaccines, and the NHS covid pass doesn’t recognise vaccines received abroad.

However, whilst there is a strong case against vaccine passports, there are legitimate arguments in favour of keeping them:

Reasons For Vaccine Passports

1. Public Health

The world over, governments have a duty to maintain good public health, and it should come as no surprise that the UK government has taken steps-by introducing covid passes-which ensure a duty of care towards citizens.

There have historically been many positive, public health initiatives (e.g., a ban on indoor smoking) aimed at improving health and quality of life for people, but which have also caused a debate over personal freedoms. Ensuring that people can enjoy a venue, or close-quatre setting, safely, with the knowledge there is a reduced risk of infecting vulnerable individuals shouldn’t be a surprising exception.

2. Opportunities

Covid passports could allow for greater freedom back into society, and for the economy to reopen. For those eager to travel, providing an effective solution to ensure UK visitors to foreign destinations are fully vaccinated is a necessary step considering many European and international countries require proof of double vaccination.

Sectors of the economy could reopen safely, and industries and businesses that require close physical contact with customers could benefit from providing a guarantee that precautionary covid measures are not necessary.

3. Representation

Vaccine passports enable the vulnerable to be represented. For those who are medically unfit to have the vaccine or vulnerable, a covid pass is an effective way to protect them, by enabling this minority to partake in some normal activities, with the knowledge that those around are keeping safe.

4. Incentives

One of the biggest reasons why covid passports may be a force for good is simply the incentive it provides for people to get vaccinated. By promising greater freedoms in return for having both jabs, those who are reluctant or refuse the vaccine on non-medical grounds may priorities the vaccine over their own opinions.

The Reality of the Situation

Whilst only time will tell if vaccine passports were the right or wrong step forward in ensuring public safety, there is some debate as to whether they will be around for long.

Across the English channel, when the French President Emmanuel Macron announced that vaccine passports would be mandatory across the country, 3.7 million people booked an appointment for their first jab in the following week. In the UK, an additional 1.3 million people had their first dose 1 week after the announcement.

Could vaccine passports potentially become redundant once most of the population are vaccinated? That is the question some analysts are asking, believing that introducing the passports is merely an initiative to get more people vaccinated.

As throughout this pandemic, the debate on whether our democratic values are under threat in the name of public health has come up numerous times, and vaccine passports are unlikely to be the last time British society tackles the question of power or protection.


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