You can justify vaccination passports on liberal grounds. Of course you can: we just blocked people from leaving their homes for months. If you can justify that in the event of a pandemic, you can certainly justify the vaccine passports. But it is all the same an intrusive and coercive act in which the state subordinates legal activities to proof of the state of health. So, in order for it to be valid, you have to demonstrate two things. First, that it is necessary. And second, that it would work.
Yesterday Boris Johnson announced vaccine passports in September for clubs or other overcrowded closed places with close contacts. So is it necessary? This question works in two ways: would it reduce transmission and encourage vaccination?
You would need a doctorate in quantum mechanics – or maybe criminal psychology – to answer the question of transmission using the government-provided narrative. At a very basic level, it just doesn’t make sense. If passports are needed, why are clubs open now, crowded with people, despite weeks of warnings that these are acting like super broadcast events? What is needed in September would logically be needed now. And if necessary, clubs should not be opened at all until passports exist.
But even though they were closed now and wouldn’t open until September with passports, it’s unclear why they would be effective.
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Being double-bitten doesn’t stop you from getting the coronavirus, and it doesn’t stop you from spreading it. Surely we all know that by now, given that most of us will have people known personally or anecdotally who have been double-bitten to catch the virus. But in case we weren’t, it was confirmed yesterday by Chief Scientific Advisor Patrick Vallance, who said 40% of hospitalizations due to covid are currently vaccinated people.
So if that won’t drastically reduce infections, what will it do? The strongest argument seems to be that it would encourage young people to get bitten. Johnson told us yesterday that 35% of 18-30 year olds have yet to have their first jab. But the vaccine has only been available to everyone over 18 for a month – a period during which rollout has slowed. For many of them, it would simply have been impossible to get the jab.
There are signs that vaccine reluctance is slightly higher among young people, but there is no firm basis yet to suspect that this is a major problem. There were signs earlier in the year that ethnic minority reluctance to the vaccine was also more pronounced. The answer in this case was to to convince rather than threatening. It worked well. An Ipsos Mori survey found that the reluctance of ethnic minorities fell from 22% to 6% between January and March.
It is extraordinary that young people are the only age group that we have decided to preemptively threaten coercive measures before they even have time to do what we want. First, they give their lives for 18 months to protect the elderly and the vulnerable. Then they are treated as a herd immunity experiment with full openness before receiving the vaccine. Then they are forced to comply for something they haven’t even failed to do yet.
Would passports work? Some people seem very confident about them. The No.10 obviously took a look at what happened in France recently and liked what he saw. A week ago, President Emmaneul Macron announced “health passes” – documents showing whether someone has been vaccinated, received a recent negative test result, or has recovered from covid. They will be needed to enter cafes, restaurants, hospitals or take long distance trains. In the 48 hours following the announcement, more than 2.2 million vaccination appointments have been made. Downing Street clearly thought they would like some of that.
But the picture is actually much more complex. France, unlike Great Britain, has a significant and long-standing problem of vaccine reluctance. And the first signs of success now seem less impressive. Over the weekend, more than 100,000 people protested the plans in at least 136 protests, many of them far-right. In their wake, Macron reduced planned fines and postponed them indefinitely.
We saw a similar picture in Israel, where a Green Pass system was used. Supporters of covid passports celebrated what happened there, but research suggests that the most effective measures were not coercive – they were about engagement and accessibility.
Mobile vaccination units have been brought to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish town of Bnei-Brak, for example, or to geographically remote Arab villages, and even to central Tel Aviv nightlife areas, offering food and amenities. free drinks, with experts on hand to answer questions and concerns.
This ties in with academic research, which find that the coercive measures for vaccines “increased the level of anger in individuals with a rather negative attitude towards vaccination”. This heightens the suspicions of those who hesitate to vaccinate, rather than respond to it.
Yesterday there were alarming images of anti-lockdown guys in central London. It was a motley group of conspiracy theorists, proto-libertarians, anti-vaccines and containment skeptics. They were angry and unruly. But they were ultimately few. The best way to increase their numbers is to play directly into their accounts of coercive state activity. The best way to lower it is to respectfully talk to people about their concerns about the vaccine.
The fact that we are even having this debate just really doesn’t make sense. The government behaves as if it has lost all sense of coherence, uniformity or intellectual capacity. On Sunday evening, he opened everything. On Monday morning, he seemed alarmed at what had naturally happened. And on Monday afternoon, he threatened coercive ineffective public health measures in order to solve a problem he had created himself.
The debate on the passport covid is complex. This is one of those areas where people of good faith can legitimately disagree, as it involves a complex balance between freedom and utility. But when you take it apart, it can be reduced to the problem it is supposed to solve and the extent to which it does. In this case, neither of the two conditions is satisfied. It’s just another half-thought-out silly idea from an administration that specializes in it. We should treat it as such.