The problem with immunity passports

4 May 2020

9:01 PM

4 May 2020

9:01 PM

Could we see ‘immunity passports’ in Britain? Ministers are reportedly discussing them as a route out of lockdown. According to today’s Guardian, the UK tech firm Onfido is in discussion with ministers about creating a ‘digital certificate’ that would be issued to those who have already been infected with coronavirus – who are presumably more immune – so they could return to some resemblance of normal life, including heading back into work.

The technology needed to carry out such a scheme is reportedly in the ‘discovery stage’ and big questions linger as to whether British bureaucracy – which has struggled to source plastic PPE and has trailed other countries in Covid-testing for months now – would be able to assemble and carry out such an elaborate scheme in the near future.

But if such a system were to get up and running, it would raise a series of practical and ethical questions – not just about the civil liberty implications of digital certification, but about the philosophy behind the lockdown itself.

First, there is the issue of perverse incentives. At the moment, the British public is making a concerted effort to avoid catching the virus and indeed spreading it. But, if being tested positive for Covid-19 secures you a get-out-of-jail-free card, the incentive to become infected skyrockets. The new priority will not be taking the burden off the NHS and flattening the curve but making sure you are in the antibody-positive group, which makes aspects of normal life accessible once more.

Creating any system that dishes out a biological status is going to create a series of ethical quandaries. If it turns out, as early research indicates, that some groups are inherently more susceptible to Covid-19 than others, how long would their genetic make-up be a determining factor in what parts of society they can rejoin? If you think the police have been overzealous with their drone usage and chocolate Easter egg crackdowns, wait until they can ask you to show your proof-of-virus. The quasi-lockdown has set out a set of rules and guidelines that, while very restrictive, has allowed people to shop when they need, work when they must and have access to outdoor space. A digital passport could risk turning the half-way lockdown for all into a full lockdown for those without immunity, as certain police forces continue to interpret rules in the most draconian way. This isn’t to say tech solutions can’t offer a liberal route out of lockdown. But the jury is still out on whether privacy advocates can get behind widely-praised schemes, like South Korea’s approach to contact-and-trace apps, as they are still working to get the balance right. Software and programmes that are designed to protect individuals – informing them privately if they’ve come in contact with Covid-19 – will stand out in stark contrast to systems that would deliberately strive to centralise and share personal data.

But the idea of a caste of the immunologically privileged, free to roam the country while others are locked down, also raises questions about the UK’s strategy so far. The lockdown has been based on the idea of public service: people are staying in their homes partly to protect their own safety, but in large part to protect the safety of others. While younger people with no underlying health conditions are by no means immune to the virus, their chances of becoming dangerously unwell or dying from Covid are statically tiny: most Covid deaths are aged 80 or older. Yet they too have stayed home – missing school, exams and career opportunities – and have aired little grief about being asked to do so. We could have seen a push for ‘age passports’, which in effect would reflect many of the health factors an immunity passport would be calculating: that is, who is significantly safer to be out and about. But instead, residents of all age groups have adopted the mantra that we’re all in this together – everyone has given up their normal life so that, one day soon, everyone can return to it. Immunity passports could quickly dissolve that sense of camaraderie, as plenty of groups could make the case that they should be exempt from lockdown measures; not just the young and healthy, but also the sick and vulnerable, who might prioritise getting other medical treatment over being kept shielded from the virus.

On a range of issues, immunity passports would have numerous hurdles to jump over before they became part of the UK’s Covid strategy. The tech isn’t there yet – reported as being available ‘within months’, which perhaps raises the most serious question of all: if we are months away from only the Covid-immune going back into the world, how much longer does the government expect everyone else to stay locked down? With the whole of the UK locked down together, the pressure is on for us to be let out as soon as possible. Once you start creating tiers of people exempt from the measures, it becomes much easier to leave those at the bottom behind.

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