Vaccine passports – our key to freedom or the biggest threat to medical choice in history?

By Ruth Stainer

Vaccine passports – A highly controversial term which now almost entirely dominates discussions regarding travel, hospitality and so-called ‘post lockdown freedom’.

Though perceived by a plethora of scientists and public health experts to be exactly the medical solution we’re looking for and a traceable way of keeping the vulnerable safe in the face of the ever-growing COVID-19 pandemic, others have questioned the legitimacy and validity of said ‘passports’, with the introduction of medical requirements in order to regain the status quo as the start of a somewhat dangerous and irreversible mark on our freedoms.

What is a vaccine passport?

Defined by Peter Chin-Hong, infectious disease specialist at University of California, San Francisco, as “a verified way of showing that people have received immunizations”, vaccine passports are somewhat a modern twist on classic vaccine cards. And, whilst their practicalities have come to light most recently during discussions regarding our tackling of COVID-19 and easing of relevant restrictions, they’re neither a recent nor untested phenomena. In fact, for those wishing to travel to regions such as West Africa or Brazil, vaccine passports ensuring protection against the likes of yellow fever, hepatitis B and MMR, amongst others, have historically been standard protocol.

How does the COVID-19 vaccine passport differ from others seen before?

However, what makes the COVID-19 vaccination passports so unique in comparison to those previously is their transmissibility to be implemented into all areas of our lives, rather than for simply just travel. It was only earlier this month that Boris Johnson announced that entry into nightclubs will legally require a vaccine passport from the end of September, undoubtedly a tactical plea to get the young vaccinated. Unsurprisingly, anger and disappointment amongst the youth was rife, with many feeling that their right to medical choice had been strategically taken away whilst others feared, due to the 8 weeks wait in-between doses, that they may be unable to access their second dose prior to the September deadline.

Likewise, many nightclub owners have shared similar disappointment, with Tony Gorbet, who runs venues across the country, proclaiming that he feels his industry is unjustifiably “starting to be used as a political football”, while Matt Clark, owner of XO nightclub in Spalding, Lincolnshire criticised the government’s decision as dangerously putting “civil liberties at risk”.

The impact of anti-vaccine passport demonstrations worldwide

Such multifaceted anger isn’t just present within the UK; rather, it has been acutely occupied worldwide, with anti-vaccine passport demonstrations seen across the likes of Montreal, where from September proof of vaccination against COVID-19 will be needed to go to a restaurant, bar, gym or festival, alongside that of France, who have recently implemented a ‘health pass’ that sees COVID-19 vaccinations as a requirement for large events, restaurants, cafes and shopping centres. These protests are not to be underestimated in significance, with an estimated 237,000 people turning out nationwide in France at the start of August, a stark increase in attendance at a similar march just a week prior which saw just 204,000 protestors. Likewise, UK anti-vaccine passport protests have been gathering in pace, with recent protestors storming the London headquarters of ITN (the company which produces ITV News and Channel 4 news), alongside that of BBC HQ just a couple weeks prior.

Key arguments posed in opposition to vaccine passports’ implementation

Though mandatory vaccines are prohibited under the 1848 Public Health Act, civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch maintains that COVID status certificates have somewhat of a “similar effect” to compulsory vaccine policies, promoting government interference in individuals’ medical choices and lives. Similarly, the Institute for Government worries that COVID vaccine passports are already creating a two-tier society in which only certain people can participate in normal activities or access employment opportunities.

The importance of vaccines

Whilst the significance of these protestors and their arguments is undoubtedly worth acknowledging, one must truly analyse these arguments in their entirety in order to make a fair judgement surrounding the validity and, crucially, the morality of vaccine passports. Ultimately, as repeatedly proclaimed by governments worldwide, the main aim of vaccine passports is to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection and spread, not to hinder individuals’ personal freedoms.

Unvaccinated people are, unfortunately, 37 times more likely to get COVID-19 and 15 times more likely to die from it. Similarly, the UK has, in the last 18 months, witnessed over 132,000 deaths from COVID-19, several national lockdowns and, thus, catastrophic economic, social and physical hardship that will undoubtedly be felt by some of our most disadvantaged for years to come. Consequently, ensuring the maximum number of people vaccinated possible seems like a logical solution to protecting, whilst simultaneously preserving, the nations’ physical and mental health and well-being.

The fairness of vaccine passports

Are vaccine passports fair? This question lacks simplicity in its answer. The most common understanding of ‘fairness’ is linked to opportunity and, unlike other nations, the UK’s approach towards vaccine distribution has been rather fair. Within the UK, all adults over 18 can access a vaccine. Where some can’t, due to medical reasons, a seemingly ‘fair’ vaccine passport system should (and proposedly will), account for this.

However, an acknowledgement should of course be made for the role that politics has, and will undoubtedly continue to have, in all of this. Discussions of travel corridors, red, green and amber lists and which vaccines are ‘acceptable’ for quarantine exclusion have often been criticised for being politically motivated. Nevertheless, though being this an issue that requires urgent addressing, this should still be separated from that of vaccine passports, which continue to uphold unwavering scientific support.

How this debate can be settled going forward

Whether COVID-19 vaccine passports are a true cause of concern depends on whether you view what they pose limitations on as rights or privileges.

Ultimately, the current pandemic has been an ongoing global crisis like no other in which traditional norms and ways of life have been decimated almost overnight. Though some may fear the implementation of medical requirements as necessary for the reintroduction of previous norms, perhaps this is an unchangeable component of the ever-protested ‘new normal’, and those opposed to vaccine passports must now find a way to exist within this realm of encouraged vaccine uptake.

‘Freedom’ within a world of COVID-19 will, unfortunately, never quite look the same and to expect us to live in a world still very much gripped by the threat of Coronavirus without any form of medical accountability nor encouragement is rather naïve and simplistic in nature.

Graphic courtesy of Nahal Sheikh.