How seriously is the government considering immunity passports? It seemed we had a definitive answer in December when vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi categorically ruled them out on Spectator TV. He told viewers: ‘There will not be an immunity passport... as far as vaccinations [go], we're not looking at immunity passports at all.’
This followed comments from Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove days before also confirming there were ‘no plans’ for such a scheme. But these promises haven’t exactly aligned with government action. The Telegraph disclosed last month that £450,000 worth of government grants had been dished out to at least eight different schemes to create digital vaccine passports. Today the Times reveals that the Foreign, Transport and Health departments are all working on a ‘certification system’ that would enable travellers to prove their vaccine status when arriving in a different country.
If the government U-turns on its pledge not to distinguish between residents based on their immunity status, it is not yet clear how far it would take it. The Times article suggests these passports would be issued in response to other countries’ Covid-19 policies — Greece, for example, plans to welcome vaccinated tourists this summer. If plans for a passport stop there, its advocates might argue this makes it more akin to a visa requirement than a freedom pass. Meanwhile Sweden — which has announced this week that it will be introducing vaccine passports — plans to extend their use to access domestic services as well, including large events and even restaurant admission.
But either decision is bound to raises a series of practical and ethical questions: mainly what happens when freedoms become directly linked to a person’s immunity status? Are the people who can’t get the vaccine yet for medical reasons simply left behind? If the travel industry is asking to see your immunity passport, what is to stop the hospitality industry from wanting to be able to do the same? (Business groups in Denmark are already pushing for this after the country announced immunity passports for travel).
And what of the optics? Young people — who statistically are very unlikely to die from the virus — have been living under Covid-19 restrictions for nearly a year now, to protect people far more vulnerable than themselves. There would perhaps be no greater example of intergenerational unfairness if the elderly start jet-setting while the youngest and healthiest (and last on the vaccine priority list) watch on.
The government will struggle to ‘cry freedom’ as restrictions lift, if those freedoms still come with conditions attached.