Domestic vaccine passports are illiberal and wrong.

It goes without saying that in a post pandemic world there are big questions about striking the right balance in terms of surveillance and privacy, data collection, etc etc, that we all need to tackle collectively as a society, and which challenge some of our core instincts when it comes to freedom and what in the longer term is or isn’t an acceptable infringement on civil liberties for public health. In other words, in a world where we begin to live with COVID the question for policymakers and society as a whole (this has to be a consensual discussion, not dictated from the top, for it to work), is what is a public health measures that needs to become a part of daily life, and what is a worrying usurpation of civil liberties much like what we saw in thw wake of the War On Terror.

Crises time and time again have lead to emergency measures that don’t go back into the box, but in the case of a pandemic there’s a clear difference: public health measures may indeed mean more data collection on the part of the state and some occasional infringements on individual freedom for the collective wellbeing of society. Those that see absolutely any mitigation measures or public health restrictions, or wider changes to how we live going forward as some sort of terrible tyranny need to realise this is the real world, there’s a global pandemic, and as we always have done in such a situation, our societies will have to learn what does and doesn’t work, and have to adapt, which will foster some changes to everyday life, as any change to our environment does and would.

However, I want to make my views on one policy proposal very clear, and I’ve said all of the above to make clear my perspective on this is clearheaded and pragmatic, not some sort of libertarian frenzy. I believe the proposal of vaccine passports for domestic use, to enter nightclubs, large indoor events, even potentially pubs, and the proclamation that this may be what does or doesn’t give you access to many of pleasures in society, is absolutely wrong and has very worrying ramifications when anyone with a progressive outlook on society takes a second to analyse the policy.

The first and foremost worry when it comes to this proposal is the fact that it’s going to mean discrimination, serious discrimination. People will be more likely to be scrutinised if they’re of a certain background, since the same racist state as before will be policing the whole thing, and this means the poorest, or those from minority communities, will be most at risk from this. At the same time, those unable to take a vaccine for medical reasons will become second class citizens, something we should all oppose and demand an exception for from the government. All this is already pretty bad, and it’s the boilerplate argument against these things, but there’s more.

Those from minority ethnic backgrounds, those younger, and those poorer, are all more likely to have refused a vaccine (everyone should take the vaccine as soon as it is offered to them by the way), meaning we’re shaping a society where some of those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds already (although hopefully there’ll be more take-up of the jab as this develops) will effectively become second class citizens excluded from many things they used to enjoy within society. This can’t be right, morally and practically, it is a disaster that will pit people against each other and see the most vaccine hesitant (AKA the most vulnerable communities) labelled as anti-vax and demonised within civil society, as we already see with the tut tutting of politicians towards the young.

No great effort to get the young, for example, vaccinated, has been made. We’ve gone straight to coercion instead of saying “if you want all these things to stay open, take the vaccine or they’ll probably all shut again” etc etc, or even wait on opening things like nightclubs until there’s really high take-up of the jab among the young, more persuasive, less directly coercive. There are no easy solutions here, and in theory the vaccine passport idea for nightclubs and the rest actually seems like a sensible way forward, but for me, the risks and the costs outweigh the (admittedly considerable) benefits of such an approach.

Politically, this now falls in the lap of Keir Starmer, he has the power to let this pass or stop it in its tracks; Tory backbenchers and their individualistic view of liberty prevent them from supporting many sensible measures, but in this case bring them to the right conclusion just with the wrong reasons, Liberal Democrats seem to have taken a stand in favour of something liberal for once, and actually plan to stand up for the principle of civil liberties as they did when it came to ID cards and other infringements under New Labour. So whether Labour goes in favour or otherwise depends on their leadership; the balance tips one way or another on this policy depending on whether the Leader Of The Opposition known for focus grouping everything can take a principled but broadly unpopular stand.

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Toby Lipatti-Mesme

Toby Lipatti-Mesme

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Insightful and innovative UK journalism and commentary, from Toby Lipatti-Mesme.