12 December 2021

Weekly Briefing: Taking a pass on Covid

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If Boris Johnson didn’t have enough on his plate with a new baby and containing the fallout from partygate / quizgate, his own MPs are about to make his life even harder.

About 60 Tories look likely to vote against ‘vaccine passports’ this week, and many seem to see it as a badge of honour. Their restive mood was not helped by the Department of Health promoting the new rules on Twitter before MPs have even voted (a move squashed quickly by Health Secretary Sajid Javid).

The Government is trying to dampen the damage by splitting the vote in three: one on passports, another on masks and a third on changing the isolation rules, and outright defeat is out of the question thanks to Labour’s support – a move which is as disappointing as it is sensible, in a narrow political sense.

The public remain very pro-restrictions and Keir Starmer has always preferred to mirror that sentiment, rather than make any kind of civil liberties case against the Government. If anything, the opposition’s criticism has been that the measures are not authoritarian enough, which leaves the public with very little choice when it comes to Covid policy.

What is it about ‘vaccine passports’ in particular that produces such a visceral reaction in some quarters? Part of the revulsion is instinctive. Nothing says ‘authoritarian’ like needing a license to go about run-of-the-mill activities, and the idea of dividing people based on medical status feels particularly dystopian. There’s a connected ‘slippery slope’ argument, given fresh legs this week when the Prime Minister appeared to float the idea of mandatory vaccinations.

Language matters too. The word ‘passport’ feels more universal and basic than a ‘pass’ or ‘certification’, which is the Government’s preferred terminology. Add in the word ‘vaccine’ and it seems spookier still, even though the plan is really for a ‘Covid-free’ status, which would include a negative test result.

One might argue that we’ve already got a Covid pass with the NHS app, that these rules only apply to certain large-scale events and that it’s a relatively simple way of reducing the spread of Omicron. There’s also a suggestion, usually rather sotto voce, that introducing a pass is meant to encourage vaccine take-up.

I don’t find any of these arguments hugely convincing: the first is simply a reflection of how far down the road we’ve already come, while comparisons with existing health checks at airports are particularly spurious, given that these passes have nothing to do with international travel. The take-up point has more solid evidence from France, where a mandate was followed by a surge in vaccinations, but that was starting from a lower base than where we are in the UK, with over 51 million people having had at least one jab,

As for reducing the spread, which is the ostensible point of the measure, the Government’s own ‘Plan B’ modelling suggests Covid passes might reduce overall community transmission by somewhere between 1–5%. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion, therefore, that we are reinforcing a two-tier society in the name of an intervention that will have, at best, a pretty modest effect on the virus.

More concerning still is that a focus on behavioural changes undermines the core Covid message: that vaccines are the only long-term way to deal with the virus. Rather than ploughing on with the distraction of a passport mandate that is both illiberal and peripheral, the overwhelming focus ought to be on ramping up the number of booster jabs. We are certainly getting there, with nearly 500,000 a day this week, but we’re still some way off the heroic 900,000 a day level this spring. That, ultimately, is the ‘real quiz’ for the PM and his team

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.