By Peter Bradley

The Government is currently considering the introduction of some form of Covid vaccination ‘passport’. Keir Starmer has acknowledged that there’s no “yes-no easy answer on this” and reserved judgment until the details of any scheme are known.

But he has also signalled that “if we get the virus properly under control, the death rates are near zero, hospital admissions very, very low, the British instinct in those circumstances will be against vaccine passports”.

He may well be right about that instinct. But what if we don’t get Covid ‘properly’ under control? What if a virus which has already claimed 127,000 lives continues to spread and kill? What if a vaccine passport offers the best hope of our returning to something like normality without placing each other at serious risk?

This is an important debate. We need to get beyond the slogans of both those for whom any kind of ID scheme is an infringement of citizens’ rights, and those who argue simply that ‘if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear’.

Like the large majority, I accepted the need for lockdown as our principal defence against a highly transmissible and lethal pandemic. I recognised too that, in order to protect lives, it would also severely limit them.  Like everyone else, I’m keen to regain my freedoms.

But, given that we are unlikely to see the end of Covid any time soon, our options are few. There are two extremes: we can remain in lockdown or under restrictions until the virus has finally been eradicated: or, as some argue, we could abandon protective measures, return to our pre-Covid lifestyles and simply accept the risks.

Or there is a third way: as developments such as the roll-out of the vaccines allow, we could review and recalibrate the balance between our right to personal freedom, our need for public protection and our desire for economic recovery. An imperfect compromise might offer the best hope of maximising the ‘normality’ we can enjoy while minimising risks to public health.

In my view this is the only reasonable option and it requires that we be open-minded about the measures we’re prepared to consider. But that does not mean that we should accept just any proposal by a Government which has repeatedly made the wrong calls, with disastrous consequences for so many. There are key tests which any scheme must pass: is it, at the time of introduction, necessary; is it proportionate; will it achieve the desired ends; will it have adverse consequences which outweigh its benefits?

So, though I’m not in principle opposed to a passport scheme, I would want convincing answers to a wide range of questions about how it might work in practice, including these:

  • how reliable can any form of certification be given our current lack of certainty about how long the various vaccinations provide protection, whether they can cope with new variants and to what extent they suppress transmission?
  • under what circumstances would it be introduced, how would it be monitored and under what conditions would it be modified and/or brought to an end?
  • if it is introduced in the foreseeable future, how might those who have not yet had the opportunity to be vaccinated be disadvantaged and how might their rights be protected?
  • would it be compulsory; what exceptions or opt-outs might there be; how would they be assessed and how would both the rights and responsibilities of those with exemptions be met?
  • what other initiatives would precede and accompany it, for example to increase vaccination take-up, particularly among vulnerable people?
  • what would be its scope; what sectors might be exempted and what alternative measures might apply to them?
  • how would it be enforced and by whom?
  • what assurances can be given about the privacy and security of data collected?
  • what safeguards against fraud can be built in?

Most of us already carry and regularly produce forms of ID which grant us rights (for example, in the public sphere, to drive a car or take out a library book or, in the private and voluntary sectors, to enjoy the benefits of opt-in memberships, from streaming platforms to political parties).

But there will still be those who are reluctant to accept a vaccine passport and any proposed scheme should be designed to allay their concerns. But they should also acknowledge that our rights as individuals are inseparable from our duties to others. While those who choose to boycott the scheme should be free to do so, they should also accept that their decision might place self-imposed restrictions on other freedoms they might wish to enjoy.

When a choice has to be made, who should take precedence: the vulnerable, vaccinated pensioner who wishes to shop or socialise without encountering an avoidable risk to their health, or the libertarian who refuses to be vaccinated or wear a mask? Which of them ought to stay at home?

If – and it’s a big if – a proper system can be devised, I believe that we should regard it not as a means of suppressing our rights but, in the current circumstances, of extending them. These are complex and difficult choices. But extraordinary problems often require extraordinary solutions.