It’s a staple of dystopian fiction. At some point in the near future, prospective employers, lovers and banks will demand to see a person’s genome sequenced before they interact. If their genes say they’re a dud, they’re relegated to the scrap heap.
Most people would still agree that a person’s genome is her own private business. But her medical records? Apparently, an alarming number of people now think that’s fair game.
A vaccination record is, after all, a medical record. It’s part of an individual’s personal information, usually treated with even more sanctity than bank statements, email inboxes and sexual preferences.
In particular circumstances, authorities or employers can demand to see some of these records, but as a general rule, it’s the exception. The Covid epidemic is no reason to change that.
In fact, it may be a reason to double down on that approach. The pandemic seems to have convinced certain individuals that they should be able to reach right into the thick of other people’s private business not as an extraordinary or temporary measure, as with contact-tracing, but on a permanent basis.
That – as well as the desire for publicity – appears to be the thinking behind the recent assertion by the Pimlico Plumbers boss Charlie Mullins that he plans to require all new employees and contractors to provide proof of Covid vaccination as soon as it’s practical.
There is no public health reason why he should be allowed to do so. Covid-19 is not a disease that is deadly for much of the population. Already, thankfully, nearly all of the most vulnerable people in the UK have received their first vaccine dose and will soon be largely immune. If any other individual wants to be protected, they, too, will soon have that option. Their chances of subsequently contracting Covid from their pilot light button and dying will then be vanishingly small.
Yet the notion of mandatory vaccine passports in one form or another won’t die. Look, if it changes attitudes among scared people so they feel ready to go out shopping or to restaurants, I’m all for the Government being willing to issue them with a piece of paper or a badge or a special rabbit’s foot stating they are safe.
Nor can we stop foreign governments from demanding such proof for entry into their countries. But the idea that such a scheme must be permanently built into daily life is ridiculous.
The main argument advanced within Government appears to be that a vaccine passport regime would enable pubs, clubs and theatres to reopen more quickly. This only holds true if you think that all these venues should continue to be closed even after we have protected 90 per cent of the most vulnerable people in our population from disease.
Those in favour of such a policy have great trouble explaining what the endgame is. When do we reopen? Is it when the whole country has been vaccinated, or the whole world? Even if we wait that long, how would that protect us from new, vaccine-resistant strains?
Covid is now so widespread that it is never going to be completely eliminated. Just as we must manage the risk of antibiotic-resistant TB, monitoring and adapting as best we can, we have to face the risk of vaccine-resistant Covid, adapting the vaccine as it goes along. Incidentally, at this point, antibiotic resistance now looks like a more terrifying threat than Covid does.
The truth is that vaccine passports are a solution in search of a problem. Currently, confidence in the vaccine is extraordinarily high in the UK. Somewhat surprisingly, it has been going up, not down. Given the risk profile of the disease, there is actually no need to rush non-vulnerable groups into getting vaccinated either.
There are particular issues with low take-up of the vaccine among social care workers and some ethnic minority groups, but I am not sure that forcing people to be injected on pain of losing their job is the best way to solve those issues.
It is possible that some cases might arise, like an outbreak in a hospital of people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, which require temporary, tougher measures. But dealing with an exceptional case that may arise in the future by implementing a risky and invasive policy now across a population of millions – or allowing employers to do so on a mass scale – would be a very poor choice.
By and large, the people disinterested in getting a vaccine are those for whom Covid is not a risky prospect. For those who are vulnerable but resistant to the vaccine, I very much doubt that issuing ultimatums or banning them from the pub will be persuasive. It is more likely to radicalise them. Ultimately, they are only a risk to themselves.
It is possible to imagine all sorts of doomsday scenarios in which mandatory vaccination or high-pressure schemes like ubiquitous vaccine passports start to look like appealing prospects. For a disease that is extremely lethal for most of the population, for example, but one where the vaccine is unsuitable for very young children, there might be a strong argument for it.
Fortunately, we are not in that situation. The pandemic has overturned all sorts of norms about personal freedoms and privacy. It is now the Government’s job to avoid enshrining these changes in society for ever and instead to extract us from this extraordinary situation.
Offering a voluntary vaccine certificate is fine for those who want one to hang on their wall or decorate their wallet. Encouraging take-up among groups with low confidence is also a good idea.
But a widespread vaccine passport scheme, backed by rights for employers and pubs to demand access to our personal information, takes us in precisely the wrong direction. Soon, nearly everyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one. Leave the others be.