here is no law that says you have to have a passport. You just need one if you want to travel abroad to most countries. That’s why only three-quarters of British people have one. In America, it’s less than half. But what if you needed a passport to travel around your own country? What if you needed one to apply for a job, or send your child to school, or even go to a restaurant or cinema?
But by the end of this year showing your passport (physically or in electronic form) as you go about your daily business is exactly what many developed countries are going to require— except the passports in question won’t be evidence of your citizenship; they will instead confirm that you have been inoculated against coronavirus. The only question is whether governments will issue them or the private sector will.
Yesterday, the impressive vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said the British Government had no plans to issue vaccine passports. That’s only true in a narrow Yes, Minister sense. There may be no plans, but a lot of planning is taking place. The decision has already been taken to have a national database with the name of everyone who has had a jab, when they could have just let individuall GP practices keep a record.
Those who have are already given a special NHS card with their name and details of the doses they’ve received handwritten on them. Someone decided that this was a sensible idea. The essential components of a passport system are already in place, and deliberately so. Why not go ahead?
For now, there’s a basic question of fairness when supply is still constrained. Even with the impressive speed of the programme, more than four-fifths of the population haven’t been called up for a jab yet.
It would be an injustice if younger people were denied access to reopened public spaces and foreign travel, while their older compatriots were released from lockdown simply because they were further ahead in the vaccine queue. But jump forward to May. Whitehall is confident that by then every adult will have been offered a vaccine.
There’s another reason why the Government is nervous of talk of Covid passports. It smacks of state compulsion, when for now voluntary take-up is working well here. That’s because the British public’s willingness to be vaccinated is one of the highest in the world. I doubt that’s because we are more rationalist than the French, or more scientific than the Germans. I suspect it has everything to do with the fact the British people revere the NHS as a national religion.
But while anywhere between 76 to 91 per cent (depending on recent surveys) of Britons are willing to have a vaccine, that still leaves many millions who are not — especially in vulnerable communities most at risk from the disease.
There are three approaches. The first is to try to educate the refuseniks, but otherwise leave them untroubled. The problem is that this endangers not just their health but everyone else’s. By leaving a fifth or a tenth of our population unvaccinated, we allow new strains the space to emerge and we continue to place pressure on hospital capacity.
Second, we could make vaccination compulsory. After all, the common weal means it’s against the law to refuse jury service or fail to pay your taxes or (in extremis) be conscripted. We also require seatbelt use and ban smoking in many spaces. So why not make it illegal to refuse a vaccine?
The danger is that such is the level of mistrust, and so rabid are the conspiracies, that compulsory vaccination could push millions of people further into the margins of society. Just because something is illegal doesn’t stop it happening.
The third approach is Covid passports. Whatever Whitehall decides, the vaccinated public is going to demand that those around them are vaccinated too — when they go to an office, take their child to school, eat in a restaurant, go to a place of worship, watch a movie, sit on a bus or fly on a plane. If the Government doesn’t police this, then businesses will.
Already some employers are demanding that their employees have vaccines. Leading a normal working life as part of society will become impossible without proof you’ve had a vaccine. Government shouldn’t stand in the way of that — it should facilitate it. As our real passports already say on the first page, Covid passports will “allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance”. Bring them on.