Domestic vaccine passports are a counterproductive, illiberal gimmick – the government must think again
The NHS app with vaccine passport update, November 2020 | Alamy
Governments can always come up with reasons to chip away at individual liberty. Uniformity and conformity, after all, makes life easier for them.
Life is still more easy for them when they can find ways to side-line scrutiny and avoid the inconvenient trip hazards of parliamentary votes. Rightly or wrongly, the government has been happy to take any chance during the pandemic to avoid debates on the more controversial aspects of their response.
Despite months of questions and concern mounting about their murky vaccine passport plans, the government has done its level best to ignore Parliament and keep MPs in the dark about any coming vote on their proposals – even as the date of their implementation draws close.
That is why I have secured an urgent debate in Parliament this afternoon to get answers from ministers on their plans – and a clear date for any vote on the proposals.
Vaccine passports are fundamentally mis-named, because they have little to do with travel and everything to do with a centralised database of your personal health information. It amounts to a checkpoint to services, venues and events – with a scope that can always be expanded after the principle is ceded – changing the way that we interact with our society.
An ID card scheme, we are told, is necessary to improve vaccine uptake. In fact, the limited amount of research that has been carried out suggests that using vaccine ID cards for domestic purposes makes people less trusting of vaccines – a counterproductive step if ever there was one. Instead, we risk pushing already marginalised groups even further away from community engagement.
Until everyone that can be vaccinated has been vaccinated, vaccine ID cards will be divisive and exclusive. Once everyone is vaccinated, of course, then the need to demonstrate this to gain access to clubs, football matches or concerts becomes unnecessary.
We have never been a “papers please society” and if that is to change then at the very least we must be allowed to debate that change
I understand completely the desire of people to get back to normal in going to concerts, sporting events and night clubs. I also understand the wish to do so in a way that is safe – but we already know that even if you are vaccinated then you can still acquire and transmit Covid. The biggest risk from this ill-thought-out gimmick is that it may create a false sense of security.
Remember that, overwhelmingly, those who will be required to administer this pointless scheme are opposed to it. Those who run pubs, clubs and large events will be at the sharp end of this government mandate. Having worked in the hospitality industry myself for years in my youth I do not envy them their task.
Aside from the practical concerns there are the principles behind such a plan. The really dangerous bit of any centralised ID scheme is the database that sits beneath the surface.
Would you trust this government – this Prime Minister – with personal data of this sort?
We have never been a “papers please society” and if that is to change then at the very least we must be allowed to debate that change.
Once we cede the principle that it is acceptable for the government to regulate in this way not just where we can go and those with whom we can go then we will be at the top of a steep and slippery slope.
As history repeatedly shows us, when people give more powers to government to regulate their lives, governments are never swift to hand them back.
To make such an enormous change to our status as citizens demands clear and compelling evidence of the need – and no alternative. As a society we cannot sacrifice our individual freedoms to governments constantly in search of a quick fix and wanting to be seen to do something.
From day one of this pandemic our government has been desperate to find a silver bullet. Domestic vaccine ID cards are just the latest in that long line. Getting the basics right – test and trace and vaccination – may not be as exciting to put in a press release, but it is what we need to beat this virus. Today must be a wake-up call for the government – drop the illiberal gimmicks, and get back to what will actually get us past Covid for good.
Alistair Carmichael is Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland and home affairs spokesperson
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