By Oliver Gibson –
Much in the last year has been sacrificed by the public in order to combat the spread of the Coronavirus. Shops, cafes, gyms and countless other businesses have all experienced a great deal of disturbance and pressure from various lockdowns, with many having to close their doors for good. Kirklees experienced a larger fallout in this regard than many other areas due to its long-lasting local restrictions, which in turn took a greater toll on its economy.
While it seems to be true that the vast majority of the public is willing to give up certain rights in the interests of public health, there must come a point where a line is drawn. For many, the prospect of lockdown ending once and for all on the 21st of June was a beacon of hope after a year that was quite frankly best left to history.
However, talk in the media about the development of ‘vaccine passport’ software has led many to question if the lockdown will actually end in June like the Government hopes. Many others have been drawn into an active debate about the nature of civil liberties in a time of crisis.
Logifect and the development of vaccine passport software
A company known as ‘Logifect’ has been given a government grant to design an app to serve as a digital vaccine passport. Logifect’s CEO, David Hollick, told ITV News in an interview from last week that an unnamed airline company was also interested in the technology. Clearly, the interest in vaccine passports from the Government and from private companies is increasing – though this does not necessarily mean to say that it will be used in the future.
Hollick described Logifect’s application as a ‘consensual’ way to prove one’s immunity to the Coronavirus, however, it is possible that the application could be made mandatory by the Government or by private companies at some point in the coming months.
What has the Government said?
Back in January, the Government’s Vaccines Minister, Nadhim Zahawi had told Parliament that there were “absolutely no plans” for the use of vaccine passports. Further to this, Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, repeated Zahawi’s assertion just a few weeks ago in a television interview.
This approach seems to have run its course, though, as the Prime Minister admitted last week that the Government would launch a review into vaccine passports. Johnson said that while “we’ve never thought in terms of having something that you have to show to go to a pub or a theatre,” there are “deep and complex issues that we need to explore” in order to combat the Coronavirus.
As of this moment, the precise intentions of the Government are not yet known. For example, this application could be used by people either leaving or coming into the UK on flights or it could be used as a means of accessing shops or restaurants after the full lockdown ends. At the moment, it seems as though there are no plans to introduce passports for the domestic economy, though of course plans can change at any time.
Johnson did assert, however, that Britain “cannot be discriminatory” against those who are unable to get the vaccine and also that the Government’s review into vaccine passports, headed by Michael Gove, would assess the “moral, philosophical, ethical viewpoints” surrounding such proposals.
Reactions from the Opposition
Sir Keir Starmer, who recently demanded that the current national lockdown “has to be the last” in the Commons, said recently in an interview with Sky News that “internationally, it’s probably inevitable that some sort of vaccine passport is going to come into being.” In terms of the usage of vaccine passports inside the UK, Starmer adopted a different approach, stressing the need for a national debate on the subject.
Tony Blair, who recently returned to front pages due to his commentary on vaccines and the Coronavirus in general, has gone further than Starmer and called for the G7, a prominent diplomatic community of which Britain is a member, to back a ‘global vaccine passport scheme.’
Such a system could theoretically simplify international travel by removing the need for all travellers to self-isolate when coming into a different country. However, getting multiple countries to all adopt a streamlined, unified approach to such a complex issue could be quite the challenge. The G7 is set to meet in June however, providing an opportunity for discussion on the topic.
Would vaccine passports be approved in Parliament?
The Government has been given emergency powers by the Coronavirus Act 2020 but a serious debate could be expected in Parliament if such proposals were brought forwards. With the Covid Recovery Group (CRG) having established itself as an influential camp within the Conservative Party in the House of Commons, a backbench rebellion could prove to be sufficient to block such a proposal from being implemented. If vaccine passports were used only for means of verification for international travel, however, then it is presumable that the resistance in Parliament would be less severe.
What does the general public think?
Public reaction to talk of vaccine passports has been mixed. More than 200,000 people have signed a petition urging the Government not to implement them, while another petition, which calls for the Government to implement them for international travel, has so far reached 3,500 signatures.
The Question Time debate on vaccine passports provoked strong responses from the audience, one of whom stated that the ‘moral dilemma’ posed by their use was ‘absolutely awful.’ Others have expressed concern at the prospect of Britain effectively becoming a ‘two-tier’ society if vaccine passports were used in the domestic market, with some in that scenario being able to freely move around and others being unable to do so.
Pros and Cons
In short, there could well be a public health benefit, to the UK and other countries, that arises from the use of vaccine passports for international travel. Provided someone was to verify that they received two vaccines and were immune, then the need for self-isolation would be removed. However, if people were to be blocked from travelling due to being unable to verify that they had received both jabs, then this could lead to frustration among consumers and potentially even legal action.
Again, it must be stressed that the Government currently has ‘no plans’ to introduce vaccine passports on the ‘domestic market.’ However, given that Government figures had said that the Government had ‘absolutely no plans’ at all in relation to implementing vaccine passports just a few weeks ago it is a point worth considering.
If passports were introduced into the domestic market, the political implications would be very severe. It is presumable that landmark legal cases reminiscent of Lee v Ashers Baking Company Ltd and others (2018), otherwise known as the ‘Gay marriage cake case,’ would ensue if consumers took producers, suppliers or even the Government to court. It would also be gravely concerning if the Government was to track and log the social meetings of the public through vaccine passports – and the question as to when the policy would be lifted must ultimately be posed.