These are only some of the issues that Covid passports will face. It will be crucial to ensure they don’t discriminate or exacerbate inequalities, particularly among those who may be hesitant about getting tested or receiving a vaccine. There are also questions about the technology they would use and the extent of data collection. Would they work across different devices and via the NHS app? How could paper passports be built to resist forgery? And how would they ensure people’s data remains private and secure? The government also needs to be clear about whether it intends Covid passports to be the birth of a digital healthcare system, or whether this policy will have a “sundown clause”, like Denmark’s Covid certification, where data is soon deleted. Ministers may want to shift some of the responsibility for administering Covid passports on to individual businesses, but this would be mired in legal and ethical issues. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, for instance, recently informed businesses that if employees cannot get vaccinated because of a disability or religious belief and businesses are unable to take additional measures, it would be legal to exclude them from workplaces. These are all questions that require detailed attention. Covid certificates could provide added certainty – but only if they meet these criteria.
This is because antibody tests aren’t a reliable measure of infection, and lateral flow tests aren’t as effective at identifying people who have Covid but only have a low viral load. The latter can be unreliable, particularly when they’re not administered by an expert. When used alongside other measures such as ventilation, social distancing and an effective test-and-trace system, Covid passports could offer added certainty at large events. But they need to meet certain immunity and infection benchmarks. There are four ways to show whether someone has Covid: proof of vaccination or the results from a PCR, lateral flow or viral antibody test. In our report, we concluded that only proof of vaccination or a PCR test result would be viable benchmarks for Covid passports.
The government has correctly drawn some red lines. Certification would never be required for essential services, such as supermarkets or transport. But entry into nonessential outlets, such as pubs and restaurants, will be a battleground for this measure. The prime minister noted on Monday that a number of fences will have to be jumped before it’s clear where Covid passports would be required, but business owners may feel that the government is sitting on the fence rather than jumping it. For international travel, where testing infrastructure and a “yellow card” system are already in place, Covid passports seem a reasonable move. The UK government is also trialling Covid passports at large gatherings such as sports events. Earlier this month, when the Texas Rangers played in front of a sold-out baseball stadium, we got a glimpse of what can happen when the floodgates open without restrictions: there was no social distancing in place and few people wore masks – all in a context of rising infections and when only a fraction of the population had received their second jabs.
So let’s focus on vaccine passports. First, a crucial distinction: there is a world of difference between requiring a vaccine to undertake activities that are seen as nonessential and applying this requirement to activities that are basic to our everyday lives. In the former case, vaccination is perceived as a choice, whereas in the latter it becomes effectively compulsory. Once people begin to see vaccines as compulsory for everyday social participation (going to the pub, even going to work), two things follow. Those who aren’t vaccinated are, in effect, excluded from society. They will view the threat of such exclusion as a means of controlling them and forcing them to get a jab. The government has flown so many kites about “Covid passports” and “vaccine passports” that we have ended up with a hopelessly confused debate where people are disagreeing over entirely different things. Certificates that allow people entry to potentially crowded spaces could take one of two forms: a “Covid passport” would show the results of a recent Covid test, whereas a “vaccine passport” would show whether people had been vaccinated.
Stephen Reicher: Making people prove they’re vaccinated will harm everyone’s health Prof Melinda Mills is director of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford, a member of Royal Society SET-C committee and participant of the Sage behavioural subcommittee. She writes here in a personal capacity
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