'Vaccine Passports' will not return our civil liberties lost to the Coronavirus pandemic. Rather, they will pave the path to segregated liberty, argues Jack Mountney. 

Any conversation on COVID-19 vaccinations seem guaranteed to divide public opinion. The most recent subject of debate concerns the ethics, values and practicalities of the so-called 'vaccine passports' which are rumoured to be issued by the Government. In principle, they would allow those who have been vaccinated to follow less stringent lockdown rules and have greater freedom of movement.

Boris Johnson's 'roadmap' has the nation fixated on reclaiming their civil liberties, after just over a year of restrictions. At face value, vaccine passports sound like a credible path towards enabling this vision. However, they are plagued with scientific and ethical dilemmas.

First, the science. The principle for authenticating vaccination is firstly, to protect the individual from society and secondly, to ensure they themselves are of low risk to the rest of society too. For this to work, vaccines must demonstrate their ability to provide twofold security – fortunately, clinical trials across all coronavirus vaccines suggest substantial protection against severe disease progression and death.

Preliminary data from Israel also suggests that symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission can be significantly thwarted. Still, several known unknowns remain; in particular, the resilience of vaccine protection to current (and inevitable future) COVID variants, and the duration of immunity.

Second, there are the ethics. Vaccine passports risk dividing society. In the UK, where older groups have been prioritised, we will see the country split into an older, vaccinated group and a younger group stuck inside awaiting their jabs. Can we say vaccine passports would really give us freedom if the population were effectively segregated? History accounts for many more failures in this approach than successes. During the course of the pandemic, widespread inequalities have been exposed and exploited by the virus. The proposition of vaccine passports will only exacerbate these inequalities further.

For example, children are not currently included in the national immunisation programme, making the already existing complexities of intergenerational interaction even less realistic, for even more of the population. Vaccine passports could also exclude the small minority medically unable to receive a jab.

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If the past year has shown us anything it is that our societies are rendered frail when we try to co-exist with inequality. Surely the pandemic has illustrated both the need and the urgency to build back better. The opportunity to rebuild a 'new normal' is ripe, tools as blunt as vaccine passports prove to be a major setback.

The debate around vaccine passports also emphasises the familiar false dilemma between public health and economic growth. The passports reason of existence would be to stimulate economy recovery by coaxing out those who are now low risk.

Proponents of the proposal would argue that it is insufficient to merely identify the social risks and instead, the extent of risk should be advised to inform policy. The same can also be argued over the extent to which rolling out passports would actually generate economic benefits – another to add to the list of known unknowns.

As the Government is reportedly considering making the passports digital, careful attention is required around the challenges of privacy. This mirrors the concerns expressed previously over the utter failure of our contact tracing systems.

The list of challenges surrounding the vaccine passport will inevitably continue. Will people resort to acquiring fraudulent passports? What are the implications for job security? If 130 countries have not received a single dose, how many years will it take to ensure equal access to opportunities globally?

A tougher case for passports may be presented in due course, if and when clarity over scientific, ethical and practical aspects emerge. But right now, there is little evidence – and too many challenges – to support their use. Vaccine passports are not be the route to liberty but the route to segregated liberty.

At least if they were digital, we wouldn't have to argue about their colour.

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