The vaccination centre where I got my jabs was in the cavernous foyer of the Jerusalem Arena, Israel’s largest indoor sports venue. Through the locked glass doors, I could see the seats where my 15-year-old and I spent so many hours cheering on our basketball team. Putting my ear to the door, I could hear the players practising.
Last week, we were finally back in the stands after a year’s absence. Fans were allowed in, at quarter of the arena’s capacity. After showing my season ticket, I was then asked for my ‘green pass’, which proves I have been vaccinated. My son, too young for vaccination, had to queue outside for a quick Covid test before joining me. In the month since I downloaded my vaccination passport to my smartphone, this was only the second time I’d been asked to present it.
Everything seemed organised when we arrived at the stadium but it quickly transformed into regular chaos. The announcer reminded the fans to maintain a two-metre distance from each other, but no one paid attention and the stewards weren’t enforcing it either. In the three-quarters empty stadium, everyone gravitated to the courtside seats we can’t normally afford.
This is a disorientating time to be in -Israel. More than 90 per cent of Israeli adults are now either vaccinated or have recovered from the coronavirus. It is a world-beating achievement. Restaurants and bars, as well as sports and music venues, reopened a month ago, after nearly a year of lockdowns and strict social distancing. Some restrictions remain in place, such as the unnecessary requirement for face masks to be worn in open spaces. All activities are officially subject to those attending having a green pass. But the reality is that you barely ever, if at all, get asked to show your pass. At one restaurant in Jerusalem, I noticed that they started asking for green passes, but have now given up.
Millions of Israelis downloaded their green passes after the government rolled them out. There was a massive PR campaign encouraging us to use them, but there was little guidance on how to enforce them. Officially, it’s the responsibility of businesses and venues to ensure that only those with the passes are allowed in. ‘No one told me how I was supposed to police the green passes,’ one Tel Aviv bar owner told me. ‘I’m leaving it to my customers. I hope no one who hasn’t been vaccinated comes in but it’s not my responsibility.’ Police and local authority inspectors have been discreetly ordered not to enforce the regulations either.
‘The truth is that the green pass was never really meant to be a condition for getting into places,’ one senior public health expert admitted to me. ‘It was meant as an incentive so younger people would feel they were going to get something out of being vaccinated.’ Israel’s quick vaccine rollout has indeed been the envy of the world, but at one point, when about a third of the population had been jabbed, the daily rate of vaccinations began to plummet. It turned out that while those over 60 were eager to be vaccinated and reunite with their families, -younger Israelis were in less of a hurry. It was the government’s promise of a green pass which would allow their favourite haunts to finally reopen that got them off their backsides and in to the vaccination centres.
It did the trick. Nearly all Israeli adults now have a vaccine passport, which means there’s no need to inspect them. Some workplaces have made them a condition of returning to the office, even though the legality of such a requirement is far from clear. But all you’re asked to provide is a screenshot or photocopy of your pass for your personnel file. No one checks whether it’s authentic.
Unlike in Britain, where the idea of vaccine passports is still anathema, Israelis are used to being required to carry -identity cards with them wherever they go. If the government here was serious about vaccine passports, they could enforce them. But the green pass did its job as a way of encouraging people to get their vaccine. Nearly everyone took up the offer, infection rates have been steadily going down and Israel’s economy has been able to reopen. It’s now almost impossible to get a table in the better restaurants without a week’s advance reservation. A green pass won’t help you there.