As I’ve written before, the thing I’ve missed the most in the past 12 months is going to see QPR with my son Charlie. So I’m alarmed about the prospect of having to produce a ‘Covid status certificate’ every time I want to go to a game. That was the advice in a recent letter signed by various sporting panjandrums and I fear it will also be the recommendation of the taskforce set up by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to look into reopening sports venues.
The first and most obvious objection is that it’s a breach of my liberty. It’s an inversion of the Common Law principle that everything should be permitted unless the law specifically prohibits it. Under this scheme, I am only allowed to do something if permitted to do so by law, which is the principle underlying the Napoleonic Code. As a freeborn Englishman, I prefer the Common Law tradition, which was one of my reasons for supporting Brexit.
It’s also discriminatory. I don’t just mean it will discriminate against those who haven’t been vaccinated or can’t otherwise demonstrate they are ‘safe’, but against those groups more likely to be suspicious of vaccines and who cannot afford alternative forms of certification. We know that vaccine hesitancy is higher among the UK’s black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi populations. Do we really want to see fewer of these spectators at sporting events? True, there are alternative ways of demonstrating you’re not an infection risk, such as getting a PCR test, but if you don’t want to jump through a lot of hoops they cost a minimum of £120. And an unvaccinated sports fan would have to get it redone before every fixture. For those who’ve had Covid-19, there’s the option of getting an antibody test, but you can’t get those on the NHS unless you work in primary care, social care or education.
In short, if the government makes entry to sporting venues contingent on having a vaccine passport, it will be discriminating against minorities and the less well-off.
Which brings me to another important point. The government cannot guarantee that other side effects of the vaccines won’t come to light, so it shouldn’t penalise the unvaccinated. I’m not an anti-vaxxer, and the benefits of getting vaccinated clearly outweigh the risks for most groups. But if the authorities create such a powerful incentive for sports fans to get immunised and we later discover the vaccines aren’t as safe as we think, people will rightly blame Boris Johnson for the harms they cause. That will permanently undermine people’s trust in public health authorities.
The government apparently believes the risks of allowing unfettered access to stadiums is greater than those of a Covid certification scheme, but there’s scant evidence of that. Numerous scientific studies have concluded that the danger of Covid transmission in outside spaces is negligible. A study of 7,324 cases in China found that only two could be traced to outdoor settings. According to Professor Mark Woolhouse of Sage, there’s never been a Covid-19 outbreak linked to a public beach.
The Cheltenham Festival in March last year has entered folklore as a ‘superspreader event’, but the evidence that it led to a local spike in infections is threadbare. As the Racing Post pointed out in April 2020, Gloucestershire was one of the parts of the UK least affected by Covid. At the time, Sir Patrick Vallance said that the chances of contracting the disease by attending large outdoor sports gatherings were slim. And that was before 95 per cent of the over-65s had been vaccinated.
There’s one final point. Some worry that vaccines don’t do much to interrupt transmission. The modellers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who recently predicted a ‘third wave’ assumed the AstraZeneca vaccine would reduce infection by just 31 per cent. But if that’s the case, there’s little point in a Covid certification scheme. If, on the other hand, the UK vaccines protect the large majority of immunised people, as recent observational studies suggest, there’s also little point, as the most at-risk will already be protected from the unvaccinated.
No, there’s really nothing to be said for the idea. Let’s hope that on this issue at least Boris rediscovers his libertarian instincts.