This topic guide builds on a thread of Twitter posts by Adam Wagner, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and Visiting Professor of Law at Goldsmiths University.
For the purposes of this debate, the term ‘vaccine passport’ means some form of immunity certificate, for use both domestically and for international travel.
Almost as soon as the pandemic struck in the UK and lockdown was introduced, questions have been raised about whether people with immunity from the disease should be allowed more freedom. [Ref: Stats News] At that time, such immunity would have come from having had the disease and recovered. The debate has re-emerged as the vaccination programme has proceeded. With vaccinated people now having a high level of protection from the worst consequences of the disease, should they now be allowed more freedom – and should there be a system to allow them to prove that they have been vaccinated?
For proponents of the idea, it would allow society more freedom overall [Ref: BBC News]. Instead of everyone being subject to lockdown measures, only those who had yet to be vaccinated would have to abide by the rules. Businesses like pubs, shops and gyms could reopen knowing that millions of people would be able to use their services. For those businesses that rely on personal services or where staff need to enter customers’ homes – from health and social care to hairdressers and plumbers – making vaccination compulsory for staff could provide protection and reassurance for clients and patients.
For critics, allowing businesses to demand vaccine passports would be discriminatory [Ref: BBC News]. Accessing services and doing jobs would be a privilege rather than a right. Some people could even be sacked for refusing to have the jab – a ‘no jab, no job’ policy. It could be divisive, pitting vaccinated groups against unvaccinated groups. There are many people who either cannot receive a vaccination for health reasons or would rather wait and see if there are serious side effects. It is a long-standing principle that no one should be forced to accept a medical procedure if they do not want it [Ref: UNESCO] but enforcing vaccine passports would be close to making vaccinations compulsory.
WHAT IS A ‘VACCINE PASSPORT’?
A ‘vaccine passport’ or ‘immunity certificate’ is simply a means of proving that a person has been vaccinated. It might also be used to prove immunity because the holder has previously tested positive for the virus and recovered. While there is no foolproof way of confirming that someone actually has immunity, it is very likely that having had a vaccine or having had the disease will give a high degree of protection from death or serious disease. There is also some evidence that a vaccinated person is less likely to pass the virus on if they are infected. [Ref: Guardian]
The idea is not new. For example, Article 67 of the International Health Regulations 1969 made it possible to demand proof of vaccination from Yellow Fever when travelling to countries where that disease is endemic. [Ref: WHO] Already, many countries have indicated that people who want to travel there will either have to have proof of vaccination or face a period in quarantine, so the creation of some form of vaccine passport may be essential, regardless of what the UK government decides.
As long as governments believe that the spread of the coronavirus is a significant threat to public health, we are likely to see restrictions placed on what we can do. However, vaccine passports offer greater freedom to those who have protection from disease. Why should the whole of society remain under restrictions when millions of people have protection? In turn, it would help businesses to get going again if they knew that millions of people could now use their services simply by showing a vaccine passport.
Another possible benefit would be to encourage people to get vaccinated. People who are ‘hesitant’ because they are afraid of side effects could be encouraged by the thought that they would have more freedom after being vaccinated. That would not only mean more people who could buy goods and use services, but it would also move society closer to ‘herd immunity’, where so many people have protection against the virus that it really cannot spread anymore.
A real-life example of a vaccine passport is Israel’s Green Passport system. Two weeks after a person has had their second vaccine dose, he or she can request a QR code, either via a smartphone app or to print out, that can be shown to access a variety of venues from which they would otherwise be banned. One feature has been that people feel safer to go out to restaurants and theatres knowing that the people around them must also have been vaccinated. [Ref: CNN]
PROBLEMS TO BE SOLVED
The World Health Organisation helped to create the rules around Yellow Fever certificates, but has argued against ‘vaccine passports’ for travel. The WHO points out that the effectiveness of vaccines is still unclear and that giving preferential access to vaccination for travellers could put at risk adequate supplies for the most vulnerable groups and countries with limited access to vaccines. [Ref: WHO]
Nonetheless, it is neither new nor especially controversial for countries to demand proof of vaccination upon entry. Things are different when it comes to demanding vaccine passports for domestic use.
One problem may be what a vaccine passport would demonstrate. Should it apply to people who have been vaccinated with one dose or only people who have had two doses? If it is both doses, which may take months for the majority of people to receive, that would make it less useful for opening up the economy quickly. Should it also apply to people who can demonstrate through a positive test that they have been infected – or a recent negative test? [Ref: Royal Society]
Then there are questions about the effectiveness of the vaccines. While they have been shown to be very effective in preventing severe disease and death, it is still unclear how much they prevent someone from transmitting the disease. [Ref: WHO] New variants, like those from Kent, Brazil and South Africa, also seem to affect how much protection the current vaccines give, with new data being published all the time. What will be the effect if a new variant is found that completely escapes vaccine protection?
Another issue is the length of time the passports should be valid for. Does the immunity from the vaccine or from previous disease wane over time and how quickly? Israel’s ‘Green Passport’ lasts for six months. Does that mean passport holders would need to get a booster jab to continue to use it? There may also be problems with validating vaccine passports, with criticism that Israel’s are easily faked and are not properly checked by venues. [Ref: FT]
But while there are issues with exactly where a vaccine passport scheme would draw the line, there are clearly many positives. It is better that some people can live their lives fairly normally than to have the whole of society under restrictions.
One issue is privacy. A vaccine passport would mean constant monitoring of what we do, at least to the extent of perhaps needing a QR code to access jobs and services. [Ref: CBS News] As Lord Sumption has argued, this may be the least-worst trade-off in terms of our rights – giving up a degree of privacy in exchange for a lot more freedom. Some would argue that attitudes to privacy have, in any event, changed greatly in the era of social media, so it isn’t something we should be unduly concerned about.
There is the issue of compulsion, too. People may have all sorts of reasons to refuse a vaccination. Denying people access to jobs and services because they don’t want to be vaccinated seems unethical, a form of punishment for a private decision. But some would say that the argument that this makes vaccination ‘compulsory’ is overstating things. No one would be compelled to accept a vaccine. While certain elements of ‘normal’ life would be excluded, jobs that don’t involve face-to-face close contact would still be open to non-vaccinated people. There could be ways around other barriers: quarantine for travel abroad, drinking outdoors-only at pubs, taking exercise away from gyms, meeting friends in private spaces, and so on. But critics would argue that this still involves a significant degree of social stigma. [Ref: Nuffield Council on Bioethics]
A more long-term question is over the development of an infrastructure for monitoring us. National identity cards have long been rejected in the UK, even though they exist in other countries. [Ref: Telegraph] If vaccine passports became established, that might mean getting used to having to prove who we are frequently. Some worry that the interest in government circles towards vaccine passports is a stepping stone to justifying greater intrusion in our lives permanently, a kind of ‘scope creep’. [Ref: Ada Lovelace Institute] Would British citizens accept the kind of state-run monitoring that is forced on the populace in China or Singapore? [Ref: Fortune] Previous ’emergency’ measures, like the vigorous security measures at airports, have become permanent. Will that happen with vaccine passports?
Equally, there is the reverse issue: that getting a proper system in place may take too long. For international travel, there would need to be a common standard on what a vaccine passport proves. It would also have to be in a form acceptable across different countries. Would we need a different vaccine passport for each country we want to visit? Given how slow the EU’s rollout of vaccines has been, how long would it take to get one set up for all 27 countries? Even within the UK, there are different smartphone tracking apps and they all took time to create. Could the various governments agree on the basis for such an app and get it developed quickly enough? If we rely on paper certificates, won’t they be easily faked, as in Israel?
There is also the question of who should decide. Would it be left up to businesses to choose whether or not to use vaccine passports or would they be mandatory? Would we have a single, national system or would it be left to a hotch-potch of measures created by individual companies or sectors? For example, BA has plans to create a vaccine app to travel on its flights. [Ref: BBC News] Even if there is an official system, there have been concerns throughout the crisis that even parliament has been by-passed in making important decisions in response to the pandemic. [Ref: UK in a Changing Europe]
There could also be discrimination in a different sense. Because black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups appear to have lower rates of vaccine uptake, a vaccine passport could lead to people from those groups being disproportionately refused jobs and services.
Proponents of vaccine passports believe that the problems are surmountable and they could be a powerful tool to get rid of lockdown measures. Critics see both short-term and long-term problems in relation to privacy, discrimination and freedom, as well as serious barriers to their implementation.
COVID-19 immunity certificates: science, ethics, policy, and law
Henry T Greely Journal of Law and the Biosciences January-June 2020
Why we must oppose vaccine passports
Josie Appleton Spiked 7 April 2021
EU vaccine passport: An ethical and legal minefield?
Rob Mudge DeutscheWelle 2 March 2021
Is there a way to make vaccine passports ethically acceptable?
Alexis Papazoglou Guardian 27 February 2021
Vaccine passports: what are they and do they pose a danger to privacy?
Alex Hern Guardian 15 January 2021
Covid vaccine passports are being considered. And health experts and rights groups are deeply concerned
Sam Meredith CNBC 25 February 2021
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Natalie Grover Guardian 14 February 2021
Vaccine passports just the start of a digital identity revolution. Here’s what you need to know
Tracey Follows Conservative Home 19 March 2021
Covid: Vaccine passport review due by April, says PM
BBC News 25 March 2021
Covid-19: British Airways plans app-based travel pass
BBC News 14 March 2021
P&O Cruises says travellers will need vaccinations
BBC News 17 March 2021
‘A can of worms’: Experts weigh in on the vaccine passport debate
David Child Al-Jazeera 14 March 2021
The argument against vaccine passports is growing
Shannon McMahon Washington Post 22 January 2021
Vaccine passports must be resisted as a solution to the Covid crisis; they’ll simply encourage state-backed snooping
Rob Lyons RT 16 February 2021
The Problem With Immunity Certificates
Stephanie Baker & Erik Larson Bloomberg Quint 9 April 2020
Vaccine passports will be difficult to resist, whether we like them or not
Philip Johnston Daily Telegraph 16 February 2021
The tyranny of vaccine passports
Fraser Myers spiked 17 February 2021
AUDIO AND VIDEO
Debate: are vaccine passports necessary?
UnHerd 18 March 2021
NYU professor: Likely U.S. will adopt vaccine passports soon
CNBC 23 February 2021
US airlines call for vaccine passports to help restart travel
Good Morning America 10 March 2021
EU leaders agree to introduce COVID-19 vaccine passports
DW 26 February 2021
Trevor Phillips and Rod Liddle: What will vaccine passports mean?
Spectator TV 22 February 2021
Are vaccine passports necessary?
Unherd 18 February 2021