enerally when the Government rules something out in the Covid era it’s a fair bet it will rule it back in again. So when Nadhim Zahawi, the minister responsible for vaccines, described them as “wrong and discriminatory” I wondered how long it would take for him to eat his words with a garnish. Two months, was the answer, since Zahawi now judges it “only right that we look at all these options that are available to us to take our lives back”. Well, as the 19th- century American sage Ralph Emerson put it, “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”.
A bit like Zahawi, my first instinct was suspicion of handing over more information to state bureaucracies than is justified by the need to access services or, like organ donation pledges, health information intended to aid research for wider benefit. It’s not unknown for sensitive records to leak, nor for clunky data collection to end up being used for purposes beyond those expressly intended, so I was sceptical. But the more I think about the balance of freedom from apps and freedom to resume life, the more I think a “vax pass” is the way to go. Especially so in cities like London which feel drained of the lifeblood of events and big gatherings and the sheer complexity of living with the semi-opening of the next weeks.
It’s worth factoring in that this is a debate we are having because the UK has been relatively fast to roll-out the Covid vaccine with three out of five adults now in receipt of a first dose. Israel and New York City, two places where the distribution has gone well, are trialling voluntary Covid certificates for public gatherings, because it is the quickest way of moving beyond the limited opening-up which still make theatre, opera and indoor concerts impossible to deliver.
They would certainly add relief to a strained hospitality sector, which will reopen under a cat’s cradle of rules. An acquaintance sends me the instructions for next week demanding her outdoor café has “two-metre distancing, or one-metre plus with mitigation, between seated groups and for the movement of people around the site”. Good luck with trying to monitor that, let alone checking on whether a dining group consists of a max of two households. A “vax pass” needs to be useful and fairly comprehensive to work — and offer enough of an incentive to motivate people to get vaccinated. It’s best to be direct about this, because the main argument causing angst is about a “two-tier society”. But a voluntary vaccine arrangement being considered in the UK would also allow entry to events to those not yet eligible for the vaccine by age or priority group. So really there is very little “tiering” going on here — except that it treats people who have had Covid or been vaccinated or had a test as being generally safer to be around than those who haven’t, for good reason.
Inevitably it would become harder for those without a document showing their Covid-resistance to attend some events that their friends or colleagues had access to — I doubt that the Government will much fancy battling with avid shoppers to extend the scheme to department stores — but that doesn’t mean it won’t be applied to other settings where the virus can spread fast.
For all the exaggerated scare stories, getting vaccinated remains the best way to suppress the spread of the virus. Some behavioural theorists are issuing dire warnings of a passport scheme deepening opposition to vaccine. But if this were demonstrably the case, European countries which have been over-cautious on the speed of their roll-out and regulatory regimes would have higher trust in vaccines. And yet they don’t. Vaccine hesitancy and hostility are markedly higher in France and Germany than in the UK or US.
That leaves us with the challenges of creating technology via machine-read codes which give “Yes” or “No” clearance to enter places or venues, while minimising risks of data leakage. Given that the sole information required here is Covid-related and can be instantly discarded, this is not an impossible technological task . The clinching argument, however, lies outside the whims of domestic politicians. We will end up accepting some form of certification to resume international travel for work or pleasure, because those vaccinated or provably low-risk will be more accepted than those who are not. So the vax pass will, I think, come to pass. All things considered, I’ve made my peace with it.
Anne McElvoy is Senior Editor at the Economist and on the panel of Radio 4’s Moral Maze