6 April 2021

What’s the point of vaccine passports?


There’s been plenty of argument about the ethics of a Covid passport system, but a more fundamental question still remains unanswered: can these passports be feasibly delivered in a timescale that is going to enable the wider reopening of society?

These ‘passports’ are intended to provide proof that an individual has reduced risk of transmitting Covid-19 thereby supporting the reopening of the economy, reducing the need for social distancing and improving public safety. This proof could be based on having been vaccinated, having recently had a negative test or having gained natural immunity from contracting the virus. Both digital and non-digital means are being considered.

The practical difficulties of implementing such a system are considerable: who will be checking the passports and how? Will entry be conditional on having a passport and which settings would these passports be used in? These practicalities are coupled with important ethical considerations around data privacy and how to make the passport system equitable, given that some people are unable to have a vaccine due to health conditions and other reasons.

Unsurprisingly, given the complexities surrounding Covid passports, the Government has been keen to stress that no decision has yet been taken but instead have established a taskforce with planned trials at nine venues from mid-April. At the same time though, the clock is ticking on when these passports would be of benefit in the Covid recovery roadmap.

Too late…again

Thanks to the success of the vaccination programme and the public’s continued obedience, Boris Johnson has been able to continue to be the ‘nice guy’ assuring the public that the Government will stick to the roadmap laid out with all restrictions being lifted by June 21, and these relaxations being irreversible. However, as reported in the Sunday Telegraph, the Government has admitted that Covid passports won’t be ready until the autumn at the earliest.

There appears to be a mismatch between these two timelines. We could spend a lot of money developing and rolling out a system at considerable cost months after the urgency of solving the problem they were designed for has passed. Sound familiar?

It seems like we are at risk of repeating the challenges around the Test and Trace system which, notwithstanding the complexities of delivering such a system at pace, could cost the UK taxpayer up to £37 billion and failed to avert a second lockdown – the exact problem it was designed to prevent. Recognising that managing a global pandemic is governing in the unknown, it is vital that ministers learn the lessons of the past and avoid paying for solutions that are no longer necessary.

Others have a head start

Other countries who are developing Covid passport systems are regularly cited as examples for the UK to consider. However, there is a fundamental difference between most of these countries and the UK, which places us at a significant disadvantage. These countries already have a well-tested existing citizen identification infrastructure which can be quickly and cost-effectively adapted to incorporate Covid passports and the important ethical debates have already been argued and settled by the public.

For example, Israel has had compulsory ID cards for all their citizens since 1982 and in Denmark their Covid passports will be linked to their existing secure ID system, NemID, which already provides Danes access to various online platforms, including a digital listing of an individual’s health records and test results. The UK does not have such systems, for good reasons some will argue, and therefore the time and the cost to develop such a system from scratch is likely to be significantly higher. That’s before we even consider the ethical dimensions of demanding this kind of ID.

So, before we get too far down the track and end up spending a lot of time debating the Covid passport system and investing a large amount of money developing one – only for it to become quickly redundant – it is important to take a step back and assess their overall feasibility. We must ask ourselves if this time and resources could be more effectively applied elsewhere in the recovery.

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Kieran Cooke is a branch officer in Chingford and Woodford Green Conservatives, a former County Councillor candidate and an educational adviser.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.