Debate – UK Vaccine passports

Image description: Woman holds up sign stating covid-19 vaccine killed husband.

Proposition – Poppy Atkinson Gibson

The government’s announced NHS COVID Pass or vaccine passport which will allow access to crowded indoor settings such as nightclubs, and outdoor events including festivals and spectator sports has sparked fierce debate, with many railing against the introduction of a vaccine passport as an impingement on personal liberties. But such a view is particularly individualist and conservative at a time, arguably, when there has been a general sentiment of community and coming together. During times of struggle, including world wars and other catastrophes, the British public are happy to insist that they were able to keep calm and carry on, all the while displaying a stiff upper lip and community spirit stronger than the ties of Union Jack bunting. Yet, in this extraordinary situation of a global pandemic, that civic duty and community spirit has been blown away by the wind of national populism which has created a sub community more concerned with themselves than others.

There is an undeniable desire for things to return to normal. People want the economy back on track, a return to work spaces and a removal of masks, but in order for that to be achieved, the virus has to be kept under control in the most comprehensive way possible: through vaccination.

In such a difficult situation, it is not possible to have your cake and eat it. Those refusing the vaccination cannot expect to be able to enjoy the same freedoms as those who are protected against the virus and we shouldn’t allow them to endanger themselves, us, or our loved ones following 18 months of extremely difficult isolation and lockdowns where poor mental health numbers have spiked.

Moreover, the NHS is overwhelmed and underfunded without covid-19, so surely an opportunity to encourage limiting the impact on our health services should be snapped up. The vaccine passport does just that. By barring those not fully vaccinated from super-spreading environments they reduce the danger to themselves or others and are therefore less likely to be hospitalised. If they want to have the freedoms to go to a festival, or watch sport, then they will have to get both vaccination doses, so that, in the dramatically reduced chance of contracting covid-19, their symptoms are less severe and the strain on the NHS is also mitigated. In turn the NHS can begin processing those waiting for urgent cancer treatments or joint replacements.

The subject of personal liberties is often trotted out when outbreaks of measles or other infectious diseases are recorded in schools. Parents suggest that children simply shouldn’t be allowed to start primary school until vaccinated on the grounds that they pose a danger to themselves and other children. Such an argument can be extended to coronavirus; here, though, the stakes are raised somewhat with higher numbers of fatalities.

“In such a difficult situation, it is not possible to have your cake and eat it. Those refusing the vaccination cannot expect to be able to enjoy the same freedoms as those who are protected against the virus”.

Moreover, vaccine passports or documentary proof is not a novel idea. Countries who regularly grapple with the threat of yellow fever or other severe and contagious diseases require proof of vaccination in order to enter such as Senegal and few suggest that such a policy is an infringement on civil liberties then. Examples closer to home such as France also suggest that the adoption of ID or medical documents does not have to be the insidious action of an authoritarian big bad wolf. When France introduced the more severe Health Pass, which requires proof of vaccination in order to enter restaurants, shops, cinemas, sports arenas etc, it was met with protests in late July and approximately 160,000 people took to the streets. But following the policy, nearly 4 million people got vaccinated.  The government’s stick method therefore appears to have successful forefathers, and although in a post-Brexit world, such success on the Continent may be a difficult pill to swallow, it does show that a vaccine passport has the potential for being very effective in protecting people and stimulating vaccination which are, in the end, its primary aims.

Those who refuse the vaccination have their reasons, of course. There are those who are medically exempt and in such cases they should have equivalent documents stating that. But, for those who refuse on other grounds which range from the reasonable – the vaccine was an emergency jab developed quickly, possibly lacking suitable rigour – to conspiracy cases regarding 5G and microchips, concerns can be assuaged. The skeleton of the coronavirus vaccine was already in the works following previous mass outbreaks of viruses such as SARS which explains its relatively speedy rollout. Moreover, fears around blood clotting, whilst a very real side effect, are rare and the fatality rates low. Only 56 deaths related to vaccine blood clots were reported and Prof Adrian Newland stated that current evidence suggests that 75% of people survive. In fact according to Clue, a popular period tracker, blood clots occur from the pill in 4-16 users in every 10,000 a year, making the widely used contraceptive considerably more dangerous than the covid-19 vaccine.

The skeleton of the coronavirus vaccine was already in the works following previous mass outbreaks of viruses such as SARS which explains its relatively speedy rollout”.

The crux of the issue is the extent of government ‘interference’ in peoples’ daily lives. Whilst nobody can be forced into getting vaccinated, the government’s vaccine passport provides both a stick and a carrot and I don’t feel that that is a bad thing. We are dealing with lots of paradoxes. We cannot return to normal if we are not as protected as possible. If people refuse to get vaccinated they endanger themselves and everyone else who has also endured the months of hardship and misery.

Think back to the school classroom. The final bell of the day is gone but your maths class remains seated. None of you can leave because you’re waiting on one glue stick. The culprit refuses to return it and nobody is willing to grass. So, instead of one person being appropriately punished, all 30 or so of you deal with the consequences of one pupil’s individualism.  That scenario is being replayed here, on a larger stage, but this time people’s lives are at risk. If a vaccine passport might ensure more people are vaccinated and therefore we as a nation are safer, for the time being I am prepared for my ‘personal liberties’ to be slightly infringed upon.  

Opposition – Raef Murphy

The government’s announcement of the potential use of vaccine passports for entry to clubs, pubs and other venues across the UK from late September is a number of things, not one of them useful, nor right.

In the first instance, the proposal of a vaccine passport to enter these ‘super-spreading’ environments as a means of mitigating risks of the spread of coronavirus is flawed. Indeed, a comparison with Westminster’s own advice on international travel is appropriate here. When returning from countries on the ‘green’ list of the traffic-light system, entrants to the UK must take a covid-19 test before arrival, and “book and payfor a test two days after their arrival. From amber list countries you must quarantine for ten days “even if you have been fully UK vaccinated”. What is clear, at this point, is that vaccination itself is not an ultimate safeguard and especially not for new variants.

There is also the burgeoning elephant in the room, that was of course recognised from the beginning of the pandemic: vaccination inequality throughout the world means that certain countries and continents are far-behind the efforts of the UK. Africa, for example, has fully-vaccinated around only one percent of its population, and India around four percent (figures taken in mid-July and late June respectively).

At this point, you are probably asking: What does this all mean for internal UK passports?

The truth is that though vaccination is ultimately desirable, the evidence that vaccination prevents transmission is still elementary. The talk, therefore, of using internal vaccination passports as a means of returning to normal is somewhat misguided, even if it may be well-intentioned. We are open to new variants, and worldwide vaccination inequality means we have to accept this as a fundamental condition for the future. What seems to be a more reasonable line of argument would be to demand that any member of the public entering certain spaces like clubs and pubs shows proof of a negative coronavirus test, as they would do upon entry to the UK from abroad.

Vaccination inequality, and variant eruption means the vaccine passport effectively does nothing other than inculcate complacency. The vaccination passport is therefore not the harbinger of normality.

All of the above seems fairly straightforward: Westminster recognises vaccines do not fully safeguard against transmission when travelling from abroad, therefore they place an onus on testing. Why do we need to change this at home?

“Vaccination inequality, and variant eruption means the vaccine passport effectively does nothing other than inculcate complacency”.

Well, we don’t.

The idea of the vaccine passport introduction appears a public attempt to save-face by a government who despite a brilliant vaccination rollout, has had some cataclysmic mishaps over the course of the pandemic. What I mean is this: the imposition of vaccine passports in late September is an attempt to mark out a deadline for the return to normality. This would likely play-out in two ways. Firstly, a sense of complacency would pervade our society, insofar as the holding of a vaccine passport would act as an impenetrable barrier between person and virus. Secondly, the vaccine passport rollout would manifest itself as despatch box ammunition, whereby the number of passports issued would somehow negate the damages both past, present and future of the pandemic. These outcomes, I hope, are undesirable to all.

There is the social side to this, too. We have seen outpourings of a peculiar, libertarian populism across the UK recently. Social media has thrown up frankly amusing caricatures of people fighting for freedom from pieces of cloth, and a vaccine (up until now it seems) they were not required to receive. Despite the asinine comparisons some of their participants make (5-G related conspiracies, for example), they still have a right to opinion and choice.

It is worth differentiating between an oft drawn and very relevant comparison here: we curtail the totalities of free speech when it incites hatred or violence towards others – should we do the same here? No: unvaccinated people will be able to enter all other areas outside of passport-mandated ones and will maintain their risk to others regardless of the passport. By pushing a limited choice between testing and vaccines we can begin to mitigate the risk posed by the unvaccinated by taking the step to maintain a handle on the numbers and spread of the virus and its variants.

There are also some perfectly reasonable concerns from a different section of anti-vaxxers; the vaccine is new and relatively untested, there have been some, though very little, complications and deaths. Though it is clear that a woman, for example, is more liable to blood clots from taking the contraceptive pill, the ultimate difference is that the vaccine passport scheme essentially obligates someone to receive a potentially harmful vaccine, and the pill is a more voluntary choice. More so, the American Vaccine adversary report notes that over six-thousand people have died after receiving the covid-19 vaccine, clearly indicating that blood clots are not the singular danger posited by the vaccine.

This is not to say, of course, I do not want us all to be safe. Yet, there is a simple way to assuage the fears of conspiracy theorists, to abate the concerns of vaccine-hypochondriacs, and to solve the manifold issues of travelling to the UK from abroad is this. Allow people a choice: show proof of vaccination, or proof of a negative and self-funded PCR test. This may be more limited than the current situation, but offers more choice than the proposed future, whilst likewise circumventing the unreliability of LFDs.

Through this we come to the same end, a safe end. We do so without forcing people into receiving a vaccine, and we do so whilst recognising our inherently elementary knowledge of transmission and the vaccine itself. I want us to get back to normal. We all do. The fact is, though, that imposing vaccine passports to reach this end is neither fully informed nor fully accepted. Normality does not have to be determined by an absolute pro or anti-vaccine stance, but a more flexible one, where testing and vaccination would preferably be used in tandem, but where they can be used separately too.

“This may be more limited than the current situation, but offers more choice than the proposed future, whilst likewise circumventing the unreliability of LFDs”.

Thus, we have the practical side – worldwide vaccination inequality means we are likely to see new variants enter the UK. Vaccination will help, but testing is ultimately crucial. With powerful variants emerging, allow testing maintain its ultimate importance. The social side – I want to see our society perform in a more cohesive fashion. Resorting only to  will deepen the pandemic’s social scars, not heal them. Be realistic, pragmatic and accommodating – no matter how hard that may be.

Image credit: Gerry Popplestone