Matt Kilcoyne is Head Of Communications at the Adam Smith Institute.
Vaccine passporting is not a clear-cut issue, and those that say that it is are doing our public discourse a disservice. Honest debate leads to the best policy outcomes, and we need it on an issue of such importance as the potential introduction of a new, lawful discrimination.
What is actually being proposed is this: that you should be able to show your vaccinated status; that employers or government and firms should be able to request you to show that status, and then use it to determine whether to discriminate for or against you in accepting or fulfilling a contract. To do it, we’ll need a new discriminatory characteristic to be assignable and recognised in law.
Discrimination comes with costs and benefits. The benefit to those that choose to exercise it is that they know that their staff or those on their premises cannot fall sick or (as evidence increasingly suggests) make others sick from this virus. Lower liabilities and lower risks could be coupled with the benefits of potentially removing social distancing requirements.
Around 20 per cent of publicans say they want to access punters and staff for proof of vaccines to ensure their staff’s and all of their families’ health. Polling by Ipsos Mori shows 78 per cent of those surveyed think you should have one to travel abroad, and the same amount to visit a relative in a care home. Over half would have it to let people go to pubs and restaurants that are opening outdoors in just over a week.
Insurers may want passports to provide future policy cover for venues, or places in East Asia that have been proven to be capable of causing super-spreader events. Trade Unions or individual employees want to be able to refuse work in unsafe conditions. Passports may help employers know they can provide it, and get back to full capacity as quickly as possible.
But vaccination discrimination comes with obvious costs, too. Punters at the pub or restaurant goers that are asked to show their status face another annoyance when going out. While it would be a minor inconvenience for many to get out their phones, any increase in friction could mean people heading home rather than staying for a bite to eat – or else not leaving home in the first place.
Ministers have let mistrust seep in over the truthful nature of their intentions. Trade associations and prominent publicans have been quick to pour scorn on the idea of vaccine passports, because they’ve been burned by quickly implemented decisions over the past year, with huge financial implications.
Increased costs might seem minor to Ministers, but they add up, and non-compliance even more so. Businesses fear being pushed out of profitability after a year of doing the right thing, and their staff facing increased public ire while actual risk recedes.
Reports this week suggesting that Ministers are going to trial vaccination, antibody or negative antigen tests for access to events at the Brit Awards will fuel fears of a cascade right down through the entertainment industry.
Lawful discrimination is not a decision to be taken lightly. The young have lost out this year but, for some, the discrimination against them and their families has been decades and centuries old. The vaccine’s take-up has been lower in some ethnic groups, first generation migrants, and the undocumented.
So MPs voting on the issue should know that, whatever we end up with, they will face accusations of active discrimination that hits ethnic minorities, migrants, the disabled, or asylum seekers. Indeed, we have seen some of this in warnings from the Editor of the Spectator this weekend.
In America, the debate is going nearly 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Florida has said it will ban vaccine passports altogether, because of the demographic breakdown of vaccine takeup. This comes with enormous costs to the confidence and safety of citizens and sides against the silent majority, and the ability of consenting adults to contract privately – and with an outspoken minority leaning into angry identity politics.
Think about how employers such as Care UK say they’ll mandate their staff to be vaccinated to allow them to continue or sign up as a new employee with the company. Vaccinations reassure their patients and their families that they will provide care with no undue extra risk to those hit hardest by the virus.
Now if we agree with the right of relatives and patients to want to be cared for by those that are vaccinated, then we’ve got to a point where we think vaccination should be allowed to be mandated in private contracts between consenting adults.
Government’s role, then, is to allow and facilitate the accreditation of data it safeguards, and enforce the safety of transfer and storage of medical data held by any third party, and your rights to access it.
Given that we know international flights will almost certainly require them, a workable system is needed. But backbenchers will be wary of any pan-European system, and the fact that Tony Blair’s think tank has shouted about the issue loudest, and has met with Ministers, will expose Conservative fractures on law and order and civil liberties.
Making mandatory a system reliant on a single private company would risk issues with a business possibly going bust; but making everyone sign up to the NHS app would risk throwing away innovations in remote healthcare access made during this pandemic. And inaction would means a hotchpotch of people asking their GP for a copy of records that can cost up to £30 each, with no uniformity and no guarantee of acceptance abroad.
The hospitality industry has said that the Government could rebuild trust by being explicit on mandatory vaccination only for international travel. This could be coupled by saying that visitors should only have to show their vaccinated status at the borders.
The Government could require vaccination of those of front-line clinical workers, but rule out in law that requirement for anyone seeking medical services from the NHS. They should make clear the exemptions for those medically unable to have access, and be honest about an acceptable level of fraud risk given there will be some that conscientiously object to taking a vaccine, and our tolerance level given the mass take-up so far.
ime limits to the laws and six-month or yearly review on the requirements could ease tensions over hits to employment, and to those sections of society that haven’t been able to be jabbed yet or won’t, for whatever reason.
Finally, and because after a long year he deserves it, Boris Johnson should take some Cabinet Ministers to a pub on the 12th April for an outdoor pint – and make it very apparent that no-one is checking their vaccination status upon arrival.