It’s easy to see the power of the argument. Vaccination saves lives, so it’s time to toughen up the anti-vaccines. It was once hoped that voluntary adoption would lead to collective immunity, for around 60% of the population. But the more contagious delta variant raised the bar higher, closer to 85%. This leaves two options: vaccinate children or start cuddling adults. Politically, the latter is much easier.
But all of these discussions are taking place behind closed doors, without any votes and minimal control. Jacob Rees-Mogg may well tell Any Questions on Radio 4 that vaccine passports are not British, but such a debate does not take place in Cabinet, let alone Parliament. Too bad, because there is something to discuss.
Take, for example, the hypothesis that vaccine passports, while draconian, are very effective. The evidence is more mixed. Young Britons show no sign of responding to threats from No10 to exclude them from nightclubs or campuses. Macron’s plan for a “health pass” moved France’s vaccination rate perhaps 4% higher than it would otherwise be, but at a fairly high price; France now has regular national protests against Covid passports, coercion and the creation of a two-tier society.
Many of those parading make the same point: that vaccine passports would radically reshape the relationship between state and society. Until now, anyone who obeyed the law was free to do whatever they wanted. But a new principle is being developed. There will be two categories of citizens: one with the old freedoms intact and the other without access to various places (maybe even the workplace) unless they provide the correct credentials. Today, it is a vaccine against Covid-19. Tomorrow it may be something else.
And who could be excluded? This is where the deepest problems lie. Eric Clapton was mocked when he said he would not perform on any stage “where there is a discriminated audience”. Certainly, his detractors have said, we are only talking about a small number of crazy anti-vaccines – no racial discrimination or any sort of real discrimination. But no one really bothered to ask who the unvaccinated are. The spectator data team took a look at the NHS database to find out. The racial disparity in Britain is worse than that of the United States. Some 16% of whites in Britain have not been loaded, but the figure rises to almost half for blacks and a third for South Asians. Similar trends can be seen around the world, with complex and much debated causes (such as trust in authority). This vaccine gap shows no sign of absorption. We can say that it is exasperating, illogical, dangerous. But unless that changes, have no doubts: vaccine passports would be a tool of discrimination that could “whitewash” any location in which they are deployed.
Then comes poverty. Vaccines are popular in prosperous parts of Britain, but become less popular as one moves down the income ladder. Britain’s poorest 20 percent are almost three times more likely to be unvaccinated than the richest (a figure that has never been released, let alone discussed). Again, let’s have no doubts who would be most likely to end up in the cold: people in the poorest communities who already have the worst health services deal.
It’s a shame Amber Rudd was sacked as Home Secretary for the Windrush debacle. The fault is not with her, but with the idea (too common in conservative circles) that people who cannot provide documents do not really deserve sympathy. This is reflected in the current plan to deny the vote to people who cannot present photo ID at the ballot box. Britain just doesn’t have a big problem with voter fraud. But no one in Westminster doubts the real motivation: those without IDs are less likely to vote Conservative.
Passports for vaccines are a logical next step in that direction – but this time a much larger portion of the population finds itself on the other side of the divide. The Conservatives’ blind spot, evident in Windrush, kept them from thinking. It’s easy to threaten a ‘no jab, no job’ policy – but harder to ask why nearly half of low-income youth still haven’t had the jab, at a time when everyone else does. ‘has proposed. Many people resist contact with the authorities, but they need help rather than punishment.
The problem with vaccine passport machismo is that it tends to view the unvaccinated as a homogeneous, deviant mass. There are of course some conspiracy theorists, but many others have legitimate concerns that should be easy to answer. The Covid-19 vaccine has been one of the greatest scientific achievements of modern times, its safety has been proven by its successful use around the world. It should be an easy sale.
Its success has also given something else: the British third wave is on the decline. Our vaccination rate is one of the highest in the world and 94% of adults now have antibodies. Some studies indicate that we may have already achieved herd immunity, with a fourth wave no longer a likely threat. This opens up an intriguing prospect: that the success of the British vaccine is already sufficient. And that there is no need to threaten vaccine passports or inflict the societal damage they would entail.
Boris Johnson presented himself as a one-nation conservative, which is why it is so strange to see him proposing a new two-nation divide between the documented and the undocumented. If he now thinks the increase in vaccine passports is inevitable, then at the very least he should let Parliament have a full debate. For years he has been the strongest voice against ID cards and the division they would cause. It’s not too late for him to decide he was really right the first time around.