Vaccine passports: encouragement, or coercion? On so-called ‘Freedom Day’ the Prime Minister announced that by the end of September proof of COVID vaccination would be required to enter venues with large crowds, such as nightclubs. However, the government ‘reserves the right’ to mandate vaccine passports in any venues they deem necessary. The government has gone one step further, and unlike before, evidence of a recent negative test will not be accepted. As a member of the Conservative Party this announcement deeply concerns me. Domestic vaccine passports have no place in our society, and Boris Johnson should reflect on his decision. The vaccine is important in our fight against COVID19 but it is also important that each individual is able to weigh up their own risks and make an informed and free decision about the vaccine.
Vaccine passports aim to increase vaccine uptake, particularly among young people, by ‘encouraging’ or ‘incentivising’ people to take the vaccine by making entry to venues conditional. However, in my opinion, this is not encouragement; it is coercion. There are plenty of valid reasons to take the vaccine – to be able to participate in society like you did before should not be one of them. As a society, discussions about free choice and informed consent often inform our thinking. But, how can an individual make a free and informed choice if their government is putting pressure on them to make that decision? Instead, the government should have focused on persuading individuals to take the vaccine by running an informative campaign about the safety and benefits of vaccination. This would have, in my opinion, had a greater impact and would be much less sinister.
If individuals are hesitant about the vaccine because they are worried about its side-effects it makes more sense to address those concerns rather than coerce them into taking the vaccine despite those concerns anyway. How will this foster trust between individuals and the government? By failing to address this, I believe the government is creating a further problem for itself in the future. As a believer in limited government, it is my opinion that a government has a duty to facilitate informed decisions rather than making those decisions on behalf of the public. An individual’s decision about their health should always be their own, and it is not for the government to decide what a ‘good enough’ reason to decline a vaccine is. Not only is this morally wrong, but it could also have the opposite effect intended. If someone is distrustful of the government and the vaccine already, then vaccine passports are unlikely to challenge this view and may even reinforce it.
It has been suggested that if vaccine passports only apply to large venues such as nightclubs, then this would not be denying an individual participation in society. I, however, would suggest that it is likely that we will see the use of vaccine passports extended across society and there is already huge discussion about which venues will be required to adopt the policy. Vaccine passports have huge implications and it sets a dangerous precedent for other illiberal measures to be introduced in the future. We therefore should be very wary. Such a policy is also difficult to scale back. When would vaccine passports be abolished? Would they be required for booster jabs in the future? Other vaccines in the future? These are questions that need to be considered. Nevertheless, even if vaccine passports did remain only for nightclubs and other large venues, this would still not be a good policy. It would have an unfair impact on those industries that have struggled for the past 18 months. They present a logistical nightmare that would be expensive and difficult to police.The impact of vaccine passports on these industries has been widely discussed, and I will not repeat it here.
Vaccine passports, by design, create a two-tier society seeped in division. It is not fair to treat individuals unfairly based on a medical decision. With what we know about vaccine uptake among disadvantaged communities this policy could have wider discrimination implications. At a time where society is already hugely divided, this risks creating a ‘us vs them’ attitude which could lead to confrontation and contempt. I also do not believe the government has given enough consideration to those who cannot have the vaccine for medical reasons. They could also face confrontation even if they are exempt from vaccine passports. The government should consider these issues carefully and ask whether they believe the so-called benefit of vaccine passports outweigh these drawbacks.
My final point is that I believe that vaccine passports are not needed. We do not need every individual to have the vaccine, and it has previously been presented as something that vulnerable people should have to protect themselves because the effect on transmission was not fully understood. Indeed, double-jabbed individuals are still able to catch and pass on COVID and this is why the government is still ensuring the double-jabbed are isolating if they come into contact with a positive case. The greatest benefit of vaccination is that it is effective against hospitalisation and death. However, even if it is accepted that vaccines help stop transmission – and there is some evidence to suggest they reduce it – I believe that enough people are willing to take the vaccine without coercion anyway. Currently everyone over 18 has been offered their first dose of the vaccine, and 87% of the adult population in England have received their first dose, and 67% their second. And these figures could increase. With a high level of uptake it appears as though vaccine passports are overkill for a problem that does not really exist. It will be much harder to remove the policy once it is enacted, and therefore should only be considered as the last possible option. It is my belief that a persuasive and informative campaign would be much more successful in boosting vaccination rates. The government risks alienating their core supporters, and creating division in society for a policy that may not even be needed. Going forward, I hope the government reconsiders its position. Vaccine passports are coercive, illiberal and may have the opposite effect than they intend.