The case for immunity passports

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

20 February 2021

9:00 AM

For more than 20 years, I’ve been raging away at pointless rules. When my blood’s up, there’s not a foam-flecked Tory backbencher that can hold a candle to me. My friends blanch when I start on again about risk aversion in the C of E, dogs banned from beaches, the pond-weed creep of health and safety. I can ruin dinner parties, easily. And yet the idea of vaccination passports, which has my freedom-loving friends fit to be tied, leaves me quite calm. Bring them on, I say, and quickly. I don’t for a moment believe that Covid immunity cards are the first step on the dismal path to a Chinese-style social credit system. I don’t even think they’re the first step to ID cards. And — what’s the alternative?

The virus is here to stay, much though I’ve tried to believe it isn’t. I almost persuaded myself, last year, that Covid would retreat, vampire-like in the summer sun. But it didn’t. Instead it became clear that in Britain, for whatever demographic or geographic reason, letting the virus off its leash means looking like Lombardy last March: devastation for the elderly; thousands dead who could have been saved; hospitals over-run and unavailable. And the lesson of Manaus is that this can happen repeatedly. They had a catastrophic first wave, but under they went again this winter.

So we can’t just get on with it, just open up and sod the consequences — not least because there’s no mandate for it. It would be the bitter end of hypocrisy if a Brexiteer like me were to start insisting that the will of the people is irrelevant; and that the majority are too dense and too anxious to see sense. So we have to tackle coronavirus one way or another, as the variants creep and spread, and this means either successive lockdowns, or a set of measures designed to stop the spread: quarantines, border closures, testing, masks, vaccination cards.

I listen to the outrage in the media over vaccine passports and it sounds to me like prisoners bickering in the dark. They say they want out. They’ve been shown a tunnel that they could crawl through to freedom. But nope, they only want to escape the very same way they came in: the main gate, please, in the clothes I arrived in — and out into the very same world. But that world has changed. The Chinese let the bats out. You can’t go home again.

Yes, it makes me queasy to be keeping company with Tony Blair, but some of the arguments against vaccine ID cards feel just as disingenuous as Blair ever was. ‘Will oppressive immunity passports pave the way to a Chinese-style security state?’ You’d think, from the fuss, that vaccinations are mandatory in this country, and that immunity papers will be insisted on by government. But they won’t be. Boris isn’t that sort of prime minister. The deadly decision to put off lockdown till too late last spring was made because he valued freedom too much.

And as he told us this week: ID will be mostly for air travel — you won’t need it to buy a pint. Even after the carnage in care homes, this government hasn’t made it compulsory for care home staff to be vaccinated — because it can’t. The Public Health Act of 1984 specifically precludes any government regulations from requiring a person to undergo medical treatment, which includes vaccinations.

The vaccine doesn’t stop transmission, some say, then add: so what then is the point of immunity passports? But just because the vaccine doesn’t stop transmission completely doesn’t mean it’s useless. On 3 February results were released that showed that a single dose of the much-maligned Oxford jab may reduce transmission of coronavirus by 67 per cent, rising to 82.4 per cent with a second dose. If we’re going to live with Covid, without lockdowns, an 82 per cent reduction in transmission is a pretty decent start.

But what if a private company decides to employ only vaccinated people? Wouldn’t that be unacceptable and discriminatory? ‘No jab, no job.’ In part, I blame the alliteration. It trips off the tongue, so it must be true. And everyone loves to fight discrimination these days. But so what if a company that cares for the elderly wants to employ only vaccinated staff? Doctors currently have to have the Hep B jab. No one fusses over that. Medics in operating theatres must wear masks. Would you go to the wall to ensure that surgeons with claustrophobia can operate mask-free? In the corona era, one person’s freedom can be another person’s lonely incarceration in ICU. So why shouldn’t Saga holidays require guests to have vaccinations? Why is my old aunt’s freedom to enjoy her hols in relative safety less important than the freedom of an anti-vaxxer to go on that particular holiday?

Much was made last week of Pimlico Plumbers deciding new staff should have the jab. Myself, I think it was a smart PR move. The weather was sub-zero. Across the country, pipes froze — including mine. And as I watched icicles form along the split in my condensate pipe, the radio seemed one long continuous ad for Pimlico Plumbers.

What worries me most about the anti-ID gang is how very illiberal they’re prepared to be in pursuit of freedom. The idea has cropped up, in this magazine and elsewhere, that government should pass primary legislation to ensure that no employer can insist on the jab. I can’t believe that anyone imagines, in the litigious West, that the law as is won’t deal with any real discrimination. Even care home staff are being reassured, sotto voce, by barristers that forcing a vaccination on them breaches their human rights.

But why would people who are desperately worried about government overreach want government to prevent private enterprise from selling people a service that might save their lives? Imagine that the virus crippled or killed one in three children — and who knows what future variants might do. Would you really encourage the government to intervene to prevent nurseries from employing vaccinated staff? That, to my mind, would be political correctness gone clinically insane.

As it is, given the number of countries signing up, I think some form of vaccine ID is a done deal and I’m glad. I hope it means a freer future for us all. And I have a prediction. I bet the very same people now so outraged about any national ID scheme will be the ones most loudly furious when (of course) the government ID scheme is delayed, and their own vaccine passports aren’t ready in time for the summer hols.

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