When passports can threaten your freedom

App scrap: What the controversial UK certificate might look like if introduced.

Is the world sleepwalking into captivity? Governments are proposing vaccination certificates as the key to resuming normal life, but critics see them as an infringement of liberty.

The junior MP did not mince his words. “If I am ever asked, on the streets of London, or in any other venue, public or private, to produce my ID card… when I am simply ambling along and breathing God’s fresh air like any other freeborn Englishman, then I will take that card out of my wallet and physically eat it.”

That declaration was made in 2004 by Boris Johnson. Now his government is considering “Covid passports” that will show whether people have either been vaccinated, recently tested negative for the virus or developed natural immunity.

The aim, the government says, is to allow people to attend concerts and sporting events. But there is speculation that the scheme could become much wider.

Other countries are looking into – or already implementing – such measures. France is considering a “health pass”, while Germany announced on Sunday that vaccinated people would be allowed to travel without quarantine, shop and visit hairdressers with minimal restrictions. Israel has come up with a “Green Pass” and Denmark a “Coronapas” for leisure activities.

China has built a vaccine passport system into its WeChat app, and Bahrain has introduced an app showing when someone has had two doses of a jab. Italy has a national contact-tracing app that tracks people through their phones.

What worries commentators on the left and right alike is that these measures are being introduced without proper debate. Governments, they say, are exploiting our fear of the virus to curtail liberties in ways which would have been unthinkable at the start of last year.

The biggest threat from “biosecurity”, Fraser Nelson argues in The Telegraph, lies in the “precautionary principle”. Once a government would have had to prove that emergency measures were absolutely necessary; now they are being brought in “just in case”, without consulting Parliament. “The definition of what government can ‘get away with’ is being expanded week after week… the old inalienable rightsfreedom of assembly, of protest, of school education, to leave the country – become privileges to be removed or restored as ministers see fit.”

In The Telegraph, the Conservative MP Graham Brady writes of a threat to “the common law tradition that we are free to do something unless there is a law that forbids it”.

One of the first to warn of these developments was the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who in February last year denounced the spread of “techno-medical despotism”. He is particularly worried that social distancing will become permanent, hindering public debates and demonstrations. The “threshold that separates humanity from barbarism”, he argues, has already been crossed when we allow those we love to die alone.

We are at the mercy, he says, of politicians who “tirelessly repeat, for the good of the frightened, that the object of their fear can never be defeated or eliminated.” But if we abandon civil liberties for mere survival, we are no better than cattle.

Is the world sleepwalking into captivity?

Dozy dupes?

Some say, no. We are all aware of the compromises that have to be made in emergencies like the pandemic. Experience has shown the importance of quick decisions in dealing with Covid-19, and traditional parliamentary processes are just too slow. The fact that we are going along with these measures now does not mean that we would allow them to become permanent.

Others point out that we have already accepted things we would once have thought beyond the pale. How could we possibly allow governments to stop us leaving our homes, travelling abroad or seeing our loved ones? Worse still, opposition parties are not standing up to them. We need a better global discussion about what is happening so swiftly before our eyes.

You Decide

  1. Would you accept a Covid-19 passport if it meant you could be traced wherever you went?
  2. Is health more important than liberty?


  1. Some countries have beautifully designed passports celebrating their landscape and culture. Design a passport for your local area.
  2. Write a story about someone whose survival depends on false identification papers.

Some People Say...

“The society that is taking shape is one that is not based on love, but on distance.”

Giorgio Agamben (1942 – ), Italian philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that measures presented as temporary often last much longer than expected, and often become permanent. Identity cards introduced in Britain at the start of World War Two were not abolished until seven years after it had finished. The US introduced fingerprinting requirements for foreign visitors as an emergency measure after 9/11, and still has them in place two decades later.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether there is a fair way of introducing Covid passports. Critics point out that some people cannot be vaccinated for health reasons. The slow distribution of vaccines in certain parts of the world means that some people might have to wait months longer for a passport than others in the same country. And if it takes the form of an app, people who do not own smartphones will be left out.

Word Watch

An app used for messaging, social media and payment. It has over 1 billion users.
A Middle Eastern country made up of islands, 51 of them natural and 31 of them artificial.
Reduce. It originally referred to cutting a horse’s tail short.
Inalienable rights
Rights that cannot be taken away. The US Declaration of Independence identifies these as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
Freedom of assembly
The right of people to come together to promote their ideas. It is guaranteed by the UK’s Human Rights Act, and the US and Russian constitutions. Despite this, a law was passed in Russia in 2014 making it illegal to demonstrate without permission.
Common law
Developed in England from the 10th Century onwards, it is based on the principle of judicial precedent, meaning that a judgement given in one case guides the judges’ decision in a later one.
Giorgio Agamben
His particular interest is the development of Western political institutions. He gave up a post at New York University rather than submit to fingerprinting on entering the US.
The exercise of absolute power, usually in a cruel or oppressive way. The leader of a system like this is a despot.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.