Row intensifies over vaccine passports

Stamped out: Countries may demand proof of immunity at the border to fight Covid-19.

Are they a good idea? Several countries already require proof of vaccination to allow travel. Some hope these passports can help reopen the economy; others are bitterly against them.

Speaking on Tuesday, UK vaccines minister Nadim Zahawi smiled ruefully as he was asked to address the “vexed issue of passports”.

His interviewer was not talking about the colour of British travel documents, but about a debate within the government on whether or not to introduce “vaccine passports”.

When asked why other ministers had spoken of passports being used to permit access to businesses such as shops, Zahawi replied that “sometimes people have different interpretations of what it means to have a vaccine passport.”

Confusions of this kind have intensified in recent weeks. As more people have been vaccinated, some have suggested that proof of vaccination will become necessary for allowing re-entry into normal life.

US president Joe Biden has already issued an executive order to examine “the feasibility” of vaccine passports.

The form these are likely to take worldwide is an electronic, biometric record of whether or not someone has had a Covid-19 jab.

The most obvious use for this is to allow international travel. Iceland, Sweden and Denmark have already laid out plans for a vaccine passport system – as have Israel and Bahrain. The European Commission is looking into developing a Europe-wide scheme.

A vaccine passport would work like the certificates that already exist for other diseases. To enter some countries, you must prove that you have had a vaccine for yellow fever or meningitis.

But international travel is not the only area where a vaccine passport might be useful. Many industries, such as hospitality, are currently struggling because of social distancing rules. Using vaccine passports could be a lifeline that allows them to reopen.

It has even been suggested that a vaccine passport should be necessary for certain jobs and that those who work with vulnerable people must prove that they have had the jab.

This line of thinking has worried some people. They suggest that a vaccine passport system may be unfair to those who have yet to receive it, cannot receive it – and even to those who refuse it.

Others raise concerns about the long-term consequences of making it necessary to carry biometric identification in order to go out in public. They see this as an erosion of civil liberties, and even an echo of totalitarian regimes.

The usefulness of vaccine passports depends in part on whether or not the vaccine stops transmission of the virus, which only occurs if they produce sterilising immunity. Early evidence is promising, but it could be some time before we know for sure.

As the picture becomes clearer, calls for vaccine passports are likely to increase. Some will argue that liberties must be balanced with the security of the public. For supporters, such as former UK PM Tony Blair, such a trade-off is “inevitable”.

So, are vaccine passports a good idea?

New Frontier

Yes, say some. We will need them if we want to manage a global crisis without shutting down borders and the economy. Covid-19 is unlikely to be completely eliminated and the world cannot afford to wait until then before normal travel and trade resume. Vaccine passports would allow a safe way of starting to open life up again. Carrying identification is a small price to pay for being able to go out safely.

No, say others. Making everyone carry identification is the act of a state that sees its citizens as the enemy. Depending on what kind of scheme is being implemented, you are either allowing private businesses or the state to discriminate against those who have not had the vaccine. People from poorer countries, where vaccine production has yet to reach, will be barred from travel, worsening global inequalities.

You Decide

  1. Is it fair to let some people return to normal life while others still have to wait for the vaccine?
  2. Should employers be allowed to make Covid-19 vaccination a condition of hiring?

Activities

  1. Design an identity card that contains all of the necessary personal information you would be willing for the government to have a record of.
  2. After doing some research on the uses of biometric data, write an argument either for or against sharing such information with the government.

Some People Say...

“Liberty has restraints but no frontiers.”

David Lloyd George (1863 – 1945), British Prime Minister

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that, while vaccine passports are new, identity checks of some kind are common in many countries already. Around 100 countries have compulsory identity cards, and many more have optional ones. Even in countries such as the UK, where identity documents are not compulsory, they are required for many activities such as opening a bank account or buying a car.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is over biometric surveillance itself. While many argue that this is necessary to ensure the smooth functioning of complex societies, others see more sinister motives. Critics sometimes point to the origins of much biometric analysis, such as fingerprints in policing—or in pseudo-scientific attempts at classifying people into race—as proof that such data collection is oppressive.

Word Watch

Vexed
A difficult and much debated problem. It can also be used to describe somebody who is irritated or annoyed.
Colour
After the vote to leave the European Union in 2016, the UK decided to change its passports from burgundy back to navy blue.
Executive order
The US president cannot make laws but can order the agents of the government to change how it implements laws. This offers a way around getting the approval of Congress, who do make the laws.
Feasibility
How possible something is to achieve.
Biometric
Anything that measures a characteristic of a person’s body or appearance for the purpose of identifying them. Classic examples include fingerprints or retinal scans, as well as more recent facial recognition technology.
Totalitarian
A term used to refer to governments, including Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that attempted to control the lives of their citizens far more extensively than liberal democracies did.
Sterilising immunity
Vaccines stimulate an immune response, meaning someone can fight off infection but may still be be able to transmit the virus. Some vaccines prevent infection altogether. This is called sterilising immunity.
Tony Blair
The prime minister of the UK from 1997-2007.

Subjects

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