Flying anywhere right now is difficult, but for those of us who are jabbed, it is at least possible. So just after Christmas I set off for America to see my family in Connecticut, armed with the NHS app technology which we were once assured would never be used as a vaccine passport. It’s now precisely that.
I tapped my phone to summon my travel credentials en route to Heathrow, but to my astonishment my vaccination status wasn’t there: ‘No Covid-19 records found.’ My ‘passport’ had been suspended.
My crime, it turned out, was to have caught Omicron in mid-December. I’d had a positive result on a lateral flow test and, following the guidance at the time, several days later had taken a PCR test to confirm it. By the time I was travelling, I had recovered and was comfortably out of isolation. But the app disagreed.
‘You have had a positive PCR test result,’ it said. ‘You must wait ten days after a positive PCR test before you can either get an NHS Covid pass or start using an existing one again.’ This did not line up with the official rules. Anyone infected with Covid can now stop isolating after seven days, as long as they test negative twice. I was on day 12.
As an American citizen, I was lucky. I didn’t need the UK’s vaccine passport to leave. But if I’d been travelling almost anywhere else I would have been grounded. Why? Because the NHS Covid pass has been programmed to calculate self-isolation from the date of a PCR test, not the date of symptom onset. It won’t just be me caught by this glitch. We’ll never know how many people had their Christmas plans ruined due to questionable software.
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, has repeatedly said that the Covid pass is not a ‘passport’ — and he’s certainly right, insofar as the state cannot (yet) revoke actual passports at the click of a button. This new technology is far more powerful than politicians want to admit and, as we are seeing, it is hard to control.
Nowhere in the legislation voted on by parliament is there mention of powers to suspend anyone’s vaccine passport. But dig deep, and you will find on a government guidance web page that a Covid patient who gets a PCR test risks having their vaccine passport temporarily taken away.
If the first question is whether it’s right for the government to have such sweeping powers, the second is whether it’s actually capable of devising and running a scheme that works. There is no obvious appeal process for when things go wrong. ‘Computer says no’ — and just like that, a citizen has lost the ability to leave the country or access parts of public life. And it’s not just a problem for jetsetters. A friend’s 90-year-old neighbour could not go to the local pantomime over Christmas because she has no smartphone and, ergo, no vaccine passport. In theory she could download a PDF and print it out, but how many over-nineties will be put off by any tech request?
This scheme is increasingly out of control. Last month the Department of Health announced the arrival of domestic vaccine passports on Twitter — days before parliament voted on the legislation. Javid ordered the post to be deleted. It’s amazing how quickly Whitehall can move when it wants to, and how ministers lose their grip.
It’s edging towards dystopian — a glimpse into what our future could be — if we continue this experiment with vaccine passports, with virtually no discussion of what’s going wrong. The idea that anyone should be free to move within a country, and free to leave it, is hardly extreme. It’s something protected in Article 13 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. But liberty, once ceded only in an emergency, is hard to win back.
Britain has never had a tradition of identity cards and this has long been a point of principle and pride. The balance of power between the individual and the state has long been tipped in favour of the former, and until recently the Prime Minister was the most passionate and dedicated critic of the ‘creepy reality’ that comes with forcing proof of identification on the public. When Tony Blair called for ID cards, Boris Johnson, then MP for Henley, declared: ‘I will take that card out of my wallet and physically eat it in the presence of whatever emanation of the state has demanded that I produce it.’ But he’s now in lockstep with Blair, who argues the introduction of vaccine passports is ‘inevitable’. If you can’t beat the system, design it instead. Don’t discuss the tradeoffs between security and liberty: just do it on the quiet, and even deny it.
In December 2020, nine months into the pandemic the then Cabinet Office secretary Michael Gove insisted he ‘certainly [was] not planning to issue any vaccine passports and [didn’t] know anyone else in government who would’. Gove is now one of the leading advocates in cabinet for the scheme.
‘There will not be an immunity passport,’ the then vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi confirmed to The Spectator shortly after that pledge from Gove. And this is not a ‘papers-carrying country’ the then health secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC in January last year. Simultaneously, the government was funding several digital companies to come up with the technology to make them.
The narrative morphed slowly. ‘Covid certification’ was simply a ‘consideration’ throughout the spring. By the time vaccine passports were first announced for domestic use, in conjunction with so-called ‘freedom day’ on 19 July, their stated intention was simple: to reduce transmission. Javid staved them off for a while. But when Omicron came on the scene, Whitehall officials spotted their moment and persuaded the Prime Minister to push the button on ‘Plan B’, which made Covid passes a condition of entry for large venues and nightclubs. No minister, however, is bold enough to rally behind the claim that the passports are making any difference.
The case for vaccine passports was further weakened by Omicron. Someone double-jabbed with AstraZeneca would qualify for a passport, for example, but this particular jab is fairly ineffective against Omicron infection. Vaccines are still protecting people against serious illness, and boosters are working miracles. But there is no guarantee against catching or transmitting Covid, rendering the logic behind the passes defunct.
So we reach a fork in the road: abolish a system Johnson once said represented the ‘loss of liberty’ — or to double down, tighten it and give people a real taste for a ‘papers, please’ society.
Where might all this lead? Head to Paris and you need to show proof of vaccination to sit down at a café. Go to New York and your children will too: the state now mandates that those aged five and older must show proof of vaccination for ‘indoor activities’.
The effects of Plan B on England’s businesses are difficult to calculate, as it was implemented in conjunction with rising infection and isolation rates. But in Scotland and Wales, where vaccine passports were introduced first, UK Hospitality estimates that industries subject to them lost roughly 15 per cent of footfall in early December. And passports didn’t save nightclubs: both countries have since shut them anyway.
The problems run far deeper than economic dips. Politicians are loath to discuss who vaccine passports alienate from society. But the figures show big vaccine gaps: as of last month, 39 per cent of black Brits were unvaccinated vs 14 per cent of white Brits. Just 10 per cent of the richest were unjabbed, but more than a quarter of the poorest. Similar trends can be seen worldwide and for complicated reasons (such as diminished trust in authority) are hard to overcome. Vaccine passports risk deepening divisions at a time when it remains vital that we persuade more people to voluntarily take up their jabs.
The government is rightfully pushing its booster programme as the response to Omicron, and it is estimated to cut risk of hospitalisation by 88 per cent. But making a vaccine passport conditional on having a booster — a direction the government indicates it’s going in — raises questions about what else might be added as a requirement in future. With booster efficacy thought to wane after ten weeks, will a fourth jab be required in six months’ time? Will passports be suspended if we don’t top up immediately? Sir Andrew Pollard, chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, suggested this week that carrying on with Covid jabs so frequently for the entire nation would be very hard to sustain.
Perhaps the strongest argument against vaccine passports is one of public health. Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, has long argued in private that vaccination campaigns work best when jabs are presented as an attractive option. Scare campaigns have consequences. Making jab status political, he fears, could have a negative impact on wider vaccination programmes.
There’s no evidence in the UK that vaccine passports have meaningfully encouraged vaccine take-up. When Scotland adopted passports, vaccination proceeded no faster than in England. A 70-page evidence document after Nicola Sturgeon’s experiment was unable to find a single example of how passports had helped curb infection or increase jab take-up.
The Prime Minister ordered his party to vote vaccine passports through last month, unable to explain how they would help. At the time, his government feared Omicron might be just as deadly as Delta. Almost 100 of his MPs rebelled, and Johnson relied on Labour votes to bring the passes in.
The outlook on Omicron, since then, has improved — along with Britain’s booster rollout. It’s the best in Europe, if not the world, with 85 per cent of the over-fifties already boosted, and all of it done without attempts to threaten or fine people. It is — or it should be — a British success story.
Nothing about this achievement required us to abandon the fundamental right to go where you want, and do as you please, regardless of your health status. If there were any evidence these passports were achieving something quantifiable, there might be a case to be made. But the evidence so far proves nothing of value. The vaccine passports fail to curb Covid cases, but do curb our understanding of freedom.
MPs may well get to have a say again at the end of the month, when Plan B measures are set to expire. Even if the government allows the sunset clause to take hold, MPs should push for a vote: not just to shelve passports, as happened by decree in September, but to scrap them completely. In the borrowed words of Boris Johnson, it’s time to end this ‘expensive, illiberal, intrusive and almost certainly useless measure’ for good.