After initially resisting the idea of Covid passports, the government decided to introduce them in “high risk” environments in England, such as nightclubs and large crowds, by the end of September in order to encourage young people to get vaccinated. While the details of this measure are not yet known, it will likely involve showing proof of vaccination, a negative Covid test, or recent recovery from the virus.
Plans for England’s vaccine passports were announced shortly after France introduced its uncompromising ‘pass-health’ approach, which requires people entering restaurants, cinemas, trains and shopping malls. to show proof of two vaccinations, a recent negative Covid test or a recent recovery from infection. The news of France’s health pass sparked mass protests; an estimated 160,000 people took to the streets on July 24. But it also boosted uptake of the vaccine. Nearly 4 million people came forward to be vaccinated after the announcement of the health pass.
Many seem to think that vaccine passports are a viable solution that would encourage adoption and allow businesses to stay open while ensuring that restaurants, bars and nightclubs do not become Covid hotspots. Still, the introduction of a passport would be a technical and ethical minefield, and a number of criteria would have to be met, ranging from how immunity is measured to the technology used and the ethical requirements it meets. The technology is expected to run across multiple operating systems and be tied to personal information while maintaining confidentiality. But beyond these concerns, would a Covid passport actually work?
At the end of June, the Netherlands introduced the type of passport currently offered in England. Its CoronaCheck app collapsed within hours of its release. People had to have a negative test, proof of vaccination or recovery. The passport was intended for nightclubs, but on the first night a report filmed drunken revelers explaining how they used a friend’s negative test results to get in and find ways to bypass the QR code.
The app was smart: in addition to proof of vaccination or a test, it asked for limited personal information (your initials and part of your date of birth), while its ever-changing QR code avoided issues. confidentiality and tracking. But the weak link was that the bouncers rarely checked the app against personal identification, as that would have required additional staff at the gate. The UK government may have developed a more advanced solution, but I am not optimistic. The only way for me to get UK settlement status was to borrow an Android phone from a coworker as the government application form was not working on an iPhone.
Like much of its response to the pandemic, the government’s Covid vaccine passport shifts responsibility from ministers to individual members of the public. We were first asked to use our “personal judgment” as to when and where to wear face coverings. From now on, nightclubs will become the arbiter of whether it is safe for people to enter. In France, a vaccination passport will apply in restaurants and other places, but in the UK, nightclubs – which generate around £ 66 billion a year and are responsible for 8% of the country’s employment – were distinguished by the government. If companies are now scrambling to hire staff and implement new Covid passes just for the policy to change in September, their preparations could be in vain.
Public health experts and behavior scientists have long argued that policies that nudge people or dangling incentives like a carrot are more effective than the stick. Although it seems difficult to understand now, there has been a considerable backlash over the mandatory introduction of seat belts, and it has taken years to ban smoking on public transport and in indoor spaces. Again, the concern was to what extent the state could interfere with personal rights and way of life. In the United States, where there are large numbers of people hesitant to vaccinate, states have introduced incentives ranging from free guns and beer to million dollar lotteries. Yet a recent study found that it was not coercion that worked, but the personal approach of a textual reminder that this vaccine is “for you” that was most effective in getting people vaccinated.
There is a risk that a mandatory Covid pass could be seen as coercive, fueling greater mistrust of vaccines. Requiring an ID or passport to enter a football game or nightclub could fuel suspicion among those who oppose the use of Covid certification. We conducted a nationally representative survey of 1,476 adults in the UK in December 2020 when the vaccine was first deployed, along with five focus groups, and found that those who distrust the government and receive information from unregulated social media sources such as YouTube were less willing to get vaccinated. For Covid conspirators, a vaccine passport can have the same symbolic effect as the face masks that have so pissed off anti-containment protesters.
When it comes to public health measures, it is naïve to make a straightforward libertarian case that government should stay out of people’s privacy. As with passive smoking, the government has a moral duty to stop the spread of Covid, to promote and protect the health and well-being of its citizens. Policies that restrict individual freedom for the greater public good can be powerful, but they need to be properly vetted to make sure they work. This means avoiding unfairly coercive measures that will only do more harm than protection.
- Professor Melinda Mills is Director of the Leverhulme Center for Demographic Science, University of Oxford, and a member of SPI-B, the behavioral sciences subgroup of Sage