James Ball

The perverse world of immunity passports

The perverse world of immunity passports
Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images
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Usually, if a government is reported to be working on a new policy reliant on sweeping new – largely untested – surveillance technology, we’re in the world of sci-fi or dystopias. At a minimum, we would expect the rollout of state surveillance to be the central issue at play, the focus of debate and objections, at the heart of a major national conversation.

It says a lot, then, that even for many of us concerned about civil liberties, that when it comes to so-called 'immunity passports' these concerns – though serious – are largely secondary. That’s how significant an issue such a document could become.

The moment that possession of a document saying a person has had Covid-19, or has gained immunity to it in some other way, grants its owner some form of significant freedom that others are denied, the world changes.

Whether that’s a broader right to work, an ability to leave their home or even – dare to dream – the right to visit a pub, whether you’re certified or not immediately becomes a dividing line in the UK that for a time will burn as vividly as class, race, or gender does now.

The moment such a divide is created, people will look for creative ways to exploit it: people will seek to fake such documents, or else sell either bogus or real ways to gain immunity or to fool a test – we would quickly witness the birth of black or grey markets for plasma, for example.

It is a foundational belief for those who believe in markets – and economics itself – that people respond to incentives. The incentives created by 'immunity passports' could hardly be clearer. For some, convoluted and expensive steps like those above might seem unnecessary – if having had coronavirus means you can earn money you need to survive, or even just get out of the damn house, then why not simply be ill for a few days?

This would not be the reasoning of everyone, or even a majority of the country, but as soon as a noticeable minority do this, the logic of lockdown begins to erode all at once. The country has been sold on the idea of sacrificing our economy and our freedom to save lives and to protect the NHS. What happens when people who openly ignored that are visibly rewarded?

Immunity passports don’t just cause harm among those who cheat them, or infect themselves to secure them – by their nature they fundamentally undermine trust in and compliance with lockdown itself. They would be seen as fundamentally unfair because by their very nature they are fundamentally unfair.

When such divides have existed for generations or even millennia they are easier to explain away, to push to the background. When they are freshly created, they are impossible to ignore.

All of this would come for a plan that we could have no certainty would work: Covid-19 is a new virus, and we don’t know how effective immunity is or how long it lasts. And all of the above comes before we consider the facial recognition technology reportedly being tested to enforce the rules.

That technology itself is interesting – facial recognition on mass populations is a largely unproven technology, shown in multiple peer-reviewed studies to have issues with significant numbers of false positives and difficulties around racial bias and recognition of non-white faces.

But its very deployment says even more: it shows the ministers and officials who are considering it as a solution know full well the divide it creates and the incentives to cheat the system – and propose to tackle that with imposed enforcement.

This would leave us with a world with crumbling support for a lockdown, in which our police would be required to enforce systemic and arbitrary discrimination with widespread, intrusive surveillance.

Throughout most of history, the best medical advice you could be given would be to avoid a doctor: cures were often far worse than the ailment that troubled you: a bleeding would turn a stomach bug into a fatal infection, and so on. Modern medicine has reversed that trend.

We should not let modern social engineering and technological dreaming inflict itself on a societal scale.