In one of his early lockdown press conferences, the Prime Minister suggested that those who tested positive for Covid could be released from lockdown because they’d be immune. The idea of an 'immunity certificate' was then dropped, as it raised obvious questions of unfairness: would you really have a caste of immuno-privileged people exempt from the lockdown rules?
But now the idea seems to be back. The Sunday press reported on an Orwellian-sounding ‘freedom pass’ that would be granted to those who complied with a government-mandated testing regime. A source told the Sunday Telegraph that such a pass would 'allow someone to wander down the streets and if someone else asks why they are not wearing a mask, they can show the card, letter or an app.'
When speaking to the Commons on Monday, the Prime Minister didn't use the f-word. But he seemed to confirm the policy: that in certain cities, ‘we should be able to offer those who test negative the prospect of fewer restrictions – for example, meeting up in certain places with others who have also tested negative.’ So with the right immuno-documentation, along comes freedom. It's a strange idea to moot with the vaccine – and a more liberal regime for all – now in prospect
Earlier this month, I heard that Cabinet Office civil servants were floating this idea and I spoke about it with my colleague Kate Andrews. We decided it could not be serious, because of the deeply troubling issues raised by the notion of immuno-privilege. Who would police the system? How? Would you need to show your papers? Perhaps an ID card, to stop the inevitable fakes? Some of the ideas being kicked around the Cabinet Office sounded inspired by Gattaca, a 1997 dystopia pic about a future where regular saliva or blood tests let the biologically fittest move about at will (the ‘valids’), while the ‘invalids’ are relegated to menial jobs.
No one can deny the cold logic behind a freedom pass. If you wanted to be cynical, you could say it would encourage participation in mass testing (turnout for the pilot in Liverpool has been disappointing) or uptake of the vaccine (the PM refused to say, when asked, if his 'freedom pass' would be granted to those who take the jab). To be even more cynical, you could say a freedom pass allows highly productive members of society to carry on earning, as long as they get their papers in order. Compliance may be a drag. But freedom for the most compliant members of a society, an economist might argue, has benefits.
Now, we live in exceptional times. Civil servants have to do blue-sky thinking and ideas like this can float around, before they are kicked out when the deeper implications are properly thought through. You'd expect Simon Case, who is now running the civil service, to explain to whoever proposed this idea that it will open a can of Orwellian worms.
Johnson told MPs that mass-testing has been 'contributing to a very substantial fall in infections' in Liverpool. Really? The below graph shows Liverpool PCR-positive Covid test results: substantial decline had started long before mass testing (or even lockdown) started. It’s pretty hard to identify a mass testing effect on the below graph.
The BMJ recently reviewed the evidence on the Liverpool mass testing project and described it as 'an unevaluated, underdesigned, and costly mess' and called for an 'immediate pause' on the project. 'The current approach will open Pandora’s box,' it concluded. It certainly seems this way, and a 'freedom pass' is one of the things to come leaping from the mass testing box.
If the Prime Minister is serious about a this (there's a good chance that he isn't) then we'd have to hear how it would be policed. The logistics would be horrendous. It won’t be long before Tory MPs start to make basic points about liberty. Indeed, not so long ago, Boris Johnson would be the first person to make such arguments himself. Here’s what he had to say about identity cards back in 2004:
“‘If I am ever asked, on the streets of London, or in any other venue, public or private, to produce my ID card as evidence that I am who I say I am, when I have done nothing wrong and when I am simply ambling along and breathing God's fresh air like any other freeborn Englishman, then 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… I say all this in the knowledge that so many good, gentle, kindly readers will think I have taken leave of my senses, and to all of you I can only apologise and add, in the words of Barry Goldwater, that extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice…. our liberties are being lost because of the intrusiveness and incompetence of the Government.’
I think he was right first time. The 'freedom pass' really is an idea to drop.