Vaccine passports: the arguments for and against

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For some, it is the best way out of the coronavirus pandemic and a key potential tool to unlock the economy and society again. For others, it would mark a perilous erosion of privacy that could result in a two-tier society.

Covid-19 vaccine ID cards and passports have been debated and discussed ever since before a usable vaccine was ready.

Now, with the trials of these digital immunity certificates set to unfold in the coming months, the concept is only becoming more and more contested.

Vaccine Minister Nadhim Zahawi hinted at tacit support, saying “it is right that we look at all of these options available to us to take back our lives”, while even Boris Johnson – a self-proclaimed libertarian who has once balked at such a system – seems to be behind the idea.

So, could we really see some form of vaccine identification in Britain where people visiting restaurants, using public transport or accessing municipal services are required to prove that they have had the vaccine? And, perhaps more correctly, would such a system be desirable?

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The first thing to say is probably that ministers currently seem as confused and conflicted about this as they have been about most others – masks, closures, free school meals – during the pandemic.

In December, Zahawi said the government was studying vaccine passport technology, before Michael Gove told reporters that such a program was not planned.

Now it appears Mr Gove was either kept in the loop or – lose the thought – or somewhat liberal with the facts: UK tech companies, such as iProov, Veridium and Onfido, have spent months examining how the identifiers of digital health could work in practice at the request of the government.

“Technically speaking, it’s not very difficult to do,” says Andrew Bud, Managing Director of iProov. “It’s not trivial, but it’s not difficult to develop either. We can put it this way: the timescale for technology would be shorter than the timescale for debating politics and educating the public.

His company is at the forefront of this. He is currently developing a system with Mvine, a cybersecurity company commissioned by the government to research possible avenues to follow.

What they created, Bud says, is nothing more complex than an app related to a person’s immunization status – likely via their NHS record – which could be displayed at the entrance of any institution requesting proof. vaccination.

“So when you show up at a location, you open the app, tag your face in your own phone and that would generate a time sensitive QR code indicating that yes, that person has been vaccinated,” he says. “You would then present that code to a linked app on a device owned by a gatekeeper. “

Live testing of the technology, he says, could begin when the government – which has donated £ 70,000 for the research – gives the green light.

The advantages of such a system have already been widely touted.

Clearly, advocates say it would allow the economy to start reopening sooner, while adding an extra layer of Covid security to everything from restaurants, sports venues, public transport and libraries to large-scale events. scale such as festivals and concerts.

“I think it would inspire a lot of confidence in people and I suspect there would be public support for it,” says Dr Cheryl Walter, virologist at the University of Hull. “So if you take public transport [as an example], if you can get on a train and know that everyone on board is probably going to be immune, I think people will want it. I think that would encourage more people to get back on the trains because they would be sure they were safe. “

Such a system, she says, could also be linked to testing and traceability systems: “Which would mean that where epidemics do occur, you could overcome them very quickly without having to re-shut down large parts of the world. society. “

Among the politicians who advocate such a system is Liam Byrne, former chief secretary of Labor at the Treasury and the party’s current candidate for mayor of the West Midlands.

“We need to quickly put ourselves in a position where we can unlock the economy and the schools and give everyone the confidence they want, and we think that would help,” he says. “In a city [Birmingham] where we have a 19 percent youth unemployment rate people are very worried Now if anyone wants to tell me a better line through which we can open our business community safely and quickly then I’m all ears. But right now, there is not an abundance of ideas.

Crucially also, if Covid-19 is found to be able to mutate in such a way that a new jab is required every 12 months or so, a way to ensure that the annual uptake remains high from year to year. would require continuous proof of inoculation. before accessing things such as restaurants and sporting events. It would be, for all intents and purposes, a method of mass persuasion.

Or, as some might call it, coercion by other means.

Indeed, as Andrew Bud readily admits: “You would be using a technological tool that effectively discriminates between people who have maintained their immunization status and those who have not. “

Pause. “Which would,” he says, “be politically explosive”.

In essence, any vaccine identification system, even sensitively implemented, would immediately create a two-tier society. On one level: those who had the jab. Below them: those who do not have one.

“This would mean that some people have access to freedoms and support, while others are excluded,” said Sam Grant, head of policies and campaigns for human rights group Liberty. “This opens the door to a world where a government can use vaccines to decide how citizens are allowed to get involved in which parts of society.”

But, some might ask, shouldn’t everyone come forward to have the jab anyway? By not having it, lives are put at risk. So isn’t it legitimate for a government to find ways to stimulate membership?

Yes, Grant said. “But this cannot be done at the expense of all rights and freedoms. We know from experience that the consequences, intentional or unintended, will always strike the marginalized. There are groups of people who will not be able to get vaccinated for a variety of reasons and these are the ones who will be most affected by decisions like this. “

Questions about data security and the fact that such a system could lead to a more comprehensive national identification system are also highlighted by opponents.

“Any organization that has sensitive information about a large portion of the population will be a target for hackers,” Grant said. “And departments have repeatedly proven to be bad data controllers. “

The good news for such skeptics for now might be that it seems to go against Boris Johnson’s avowed libertarian instincts. It is, by nature, against anything that looks like ID cards.

But, then, by nature, the Prime Minister was also against lockdowns, masks and travel bans.

Her hand has been forced by previous events and, with Tuesday’s announcement that the economy is expected to worsen before it improves, it may well be forced again. While vaccine ID cards seem to offer a way to open certain areas more quickly, he may find the lure too hard to resist.


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