Lionel Shriver

The absurd theatre of vaccine passports

The absurd theatre of vaccine passports
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When a column highlighting under-appreciated breaking news has had absolutely no impact on the course of events (per usual), the urge to make the same point again is irresistible.

In August, Public Health England released data which shows that vaccination does not appreciably guard against Covid infection and transmission and protection worked out at around 17 per cent for the over-fifties. As I observed then, this would mean the vaxxed and unvaxxed pose a comparable danger to each other. All Covid apartheid schemes are therefore insensible.

Fresher information has fortified this conclusion of the summer. In every age group over 30 in the UK, the rates of Covid infection per 100,000 are now higher among the vaxxed than the unvaxxed. Indeed, in the cohorts aged between 40 and 79, infection rates among the vaccinated are more than twice as high as among the unvaccinated. PHE’s fruitlessly rechristened body, the UK Health Security Agency, frantically clarifies that the data ‘should not be used to estimate vaccine effectiveness’, a caveat which I include for the sake of accuracy. But the differences in the infection rates are drastic enough for you to draw your own conclusions.

As for the comparative contagiousness of each group, the data is mixed. A study published in Nature early last month confirmed PHE’s finding that the Covid-positive vaxxed and unvaxxed carry nearly identical viral loads; hence they should be similarly infectious. But viral load turns out to drop more quickly in the vaccinated, making them infectious for a shorter period. The study shows that ‘people who become infected with the Delta variant are less likely to pass the virus to their close contacts if they have already had a Covid-19 vaccine than if they haven’t’.

That’s the good news. Now for Nature’s bad news: ‘But that protective effect is relatively small, and dwindles alarmingly at three months after the receipt of the second shot… Unfortunately, the vaccine’s beneficial effect on Delta transmission waned to almost negligible levels over time.’ Three months after vaccination, your chances of passing on the Delta variant are ‘on par with the likelihood that an unvaccinated person will spread the virus’.

Mercifully, the vaccines’ protection from hospitalisation and death is slumping slowly and remains considerable. Stress on healthcare systems and excess deaths are the only reasons Covid is a concern of government.

All this information is in the public domain. Yet due to doublethink, idiocy, mulishness, duplicity, derangement or all of the above, policy-makers are refusing to act on its implications. The absurd theatre of vaccine passports in continental Europe is worse than pointless. Gatekeeping of pleasure palaces promotes the wrong impression — statistically, the lie — that the unvaccinated riff-raff exiled to the pavement pose a far graver threat of communicable disease than the diners in the nearby banquette who, like you, have righteously got the shot. In truth, the double-jabbed airline passenger in 24A can be just as risky a seat-mate as the great unwashed banished from the flight.

Officialdom’s stubborn refusal to register that vaccination does not rule out Covid infection or transmission has catastrophic consequences. As England’s adult social care sector has more than 100,000 vacancies already, the compulsory sacking of unvaxxed care-home staff could close up to 500 facilities that the nation can’t afford to lose. A vaccine mandate for NHS employees will likewise lead to significant staff attrition, when the service also suffers from about 100,000 unfilled jobs.

Stopped for now by the courts, Joe Biden has bullied on with his edict that all American businesses with 100 or more employees require their whole workforce to be vaccinated, or submit to onerous weekly testing, with a whopping $14,000 fine per unvaxxed hire. Austria has just implemented a lockdown for its entire unvaccinated population of two million. Already barred from restaurants, hair salons and cinemas, now these poor pariahs can barely leave the house.

The myth of ultra-contagious anti-vaxxers dispersing plague like rats in the Middle Ages has fostered gratuitous rancour and division. A friend in New York declared recently that she hoped all the unvaccinated would simply die.

By spearheading the vaccine drives, governments have attached themselves to a product. They’re implicitly in league with the pharmaceutical industry, not by means of a conspiracy, but because of perceived common interest. Successful vaccine? Successful government. The mainstream media and swaths of the medical establishment have also attached themselves to the product. All these parties are in cahoots to maintain a Manichean social partition: you must be all in, or you’re all against. Any appreciation for the risks or limits of vaccines casts you as a dreaded anti-vaxxer. So any feel for nuance makes you stupid. Any short-of-fanatical devotion to the perfect benevolence of vaccines makes you crazy.

Yet the product is a bit of a disappointment. It reduces death and hospitalisation, but can’t stop Covid from spreading. The virus continues merrily to sweep through heavily vaccinated populations. What we have here, then, is an advertising problem. The purveyors of products are inclined to overpromise. Adverts for a hair-loss treatment tend to boast not ‘Stimulates some minor follicular growth’, but rather ‘Cures balding!’ Having oversold their adopted elixir, governments won’t retreat from the cures-balding pitch. ‘Won’t keep you from getting sick or even from making other people sick, but prevents dying a lot of the time!’ makes for a lukewarm slogan.

I’m double-vaccinated — gladly so, on balance. But I’ve no fear of vaccine virgins. As the medical case for shunning the unvaccinated is unconvincing, vax passports and employment mandates function purely as blackmail. As a judge decreed when staying Biden’s edict: ‘The mandate’s true purpose is not to enhance workplace safety, but instead to ramp up vaccine uptake by any means necessary.’

Much western public health policy is now irrational. Governments need to detach from the product. Instead, they’ve detached from the facts.