Another Government U-Turn: Vaccine Passports on the Way

Sky News reports that today Ministers will discuss a Cabinet Office proposal to introduce vaccine and testing certificates for future international travel.

Responsibilities have already been divided up between government departments to look at the idea. If approved, the Department for Transport will be told to draw up plans for a certificate infrastructure. And the NHS will be told to prepare to let people access their vaccine status when preparing for international travel.

“Formal engagement” with other countries and international organisations will also begin, led by the Cabinet Office. The Foreign Office, meanwhile, will help design the international certificate system.

Sky News has been told Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has signed off on the proposal ahead of a meeting with other cabinet ministers tomorrow. A government insider stressed there is “nervousness” about when such a system will even be announced publicly, let alone rolled out for use.

A briefing paper prepared ahead of the COVID operations meeting tomorrow and seen by Sky News said: “We should not set even speculative timelines on when this may change border measures.” The policy will not be implemented until there is “sufficient scientific evidence” from the Government’s advisory group known as SAGE on the effects of vaccine and testing certificates.

A Government spokesperson did not deny the plan, telling Sky News: “The UK Government, like most nations, wants to open up international travel in a responsible safe and fair manner and we continue to be guided by the science. We want to ensure there is an internationally recognised approach to enable travel and are working closely with international partners to do so.”

The Government has previously denied there were plans for vaccine passports. Which made it highly suspicious that £450,000 worth of Government grants were given to eight schemes focused on developing digital immunity documentation. Lara Prendergast in the Spectator takes a closer look at what is going on. She finds an idea gaining traction internationally.

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.

It would likely start with holidays. But where would it stop?

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% of British adults are “likely” to take up the offer of a jab, but 15% 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% 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.

Worth reading in full.