Pros and cons of ‘vaccine passports’
More criticism piled on government’s proposal for Covid status certificates
Opposition to so-called Covid passports is mounting as Boris Johnson says they are likely to be a “fact of life” for overseas travel.
The government is considering a Covid certification scheme for international travel and, in a separate review, for accessing some domestic services and venues, such as pubs, theatres and sports stadiums.
Ministers have suggested that the “temporary measure” might enable people to easily show their Covid status, whether that is a vaccination, a recent negative test or natural immunity after having coronavirus.
Johnson told reporters at AstraZeneca’s Macclesfield factory today: “What we are looking at is what several other countries are looking at and that is the role of vaccination passports for overseas travel - I think that is going to be a fact of life, probably.”
An update published by the government last night suggested certification would be considered for June onwards and be “a feature of our lives until the threat from the pandemic recedes”. However, the angry response from both Tory and Labour MPs suggests Johnson might struggle to get domestic vaccine passports through parliament should there be a vote on the scheme.
The PM has acknowledged that there are “moral complexities, ethical problems that need to be addressed”. Here are just some of them.
Reducing risk of infection
The main aim of vaccine passports would be to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading as the government relaxes other social distancing measures. The review, led by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, will consider how effectively and feasibly a certificate of vaccination might help limit the spread of the disease.
A route to normality
Vaccine passports could provide a way to revive sectors where it is harder to social distance, such as travel and hospitality. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is testing a “Travel Pass”, which carries details of Covid tests and vaccination on an app, while European officials have announced plans for an EU-wide “Digital Green Certificate” for travel.
Israel – which has the world’s highest proportion of vaccinated citizens – introduced a “Green Pass” enabling people to use facilities such as gyms and hotels, with its economy now starting to reopen. By demanding Covid status on entry, venues could potentially relax social distancing measures and operate "far more profitably”, says The Guardian.
Protecting the vulnerable
According to The Daily Telegraph, the government is trying to make it mandatory for care-home workers to have a Covid-19 vaccination. “Ministers feel compelled to act amid alarm at the low take-up of vaccines among staff in care homes, where many of those most at risk from the virus live,” says the newspaper. Johnson has said the idea should not feel “alien”, pointing out that surgeons are expected to have a vaccination against hepatitis B.
One of the biggest arguments against any form of compulsory vaccination is the government’s encroachment on personal freedoms. “We should all be able to live our lives free from unnecessary interference – any form of immunity passport would rob us of that,” argues human rights campaign group Liberty. It also fears that once they have been introduced for one area, such as travel, “it would be all too easy for their use to be extended and abused”.
Civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch agrees, saying that while “mandatory vaccines are prohibited under the Public Health Act” in the UK, Covid status certificates would have a “similar effect” to compulsory vaccine policies, which are “typically imposed by exclusion or penalties for those who decline vaccines”.
Johnson has said that a vaccine passport scheme may only be introduced once all adults in the UK have been offered a jab. Yet there are still likely to be many people left unvaccinated. “Creating a two-tier society, where only some people can participate in normal activities or access employment opportunities could have major ethical implications,” says the Institute for Government. It risks worsening inequalities, especially as take-up has varied among different groups. Internationally, entire countries may also be waiting years to travel if they are unable to access a vaccination programme.
The BBC reported last month that fake vaccination certificates were being sold on the darknet for around $150 (£110). As well as the risks of fraud, there are also concerns about sharing private health data with companies and governments. And Laurin Weissinger, a lecturer in cybersecurity at Tufts University, Massachusetts, says perceived safety gains risk creating a false sense of security. “For example, premature opening could increase transmission from vaccinated but infected individuals.” On The Conversation, he writes that vaccination passport apps “could help society reopen” but “first they have to be secure, private and trusted”.