Over the past few days, there has been a lot of focus in the media on vaccine passports. These are not a single concept, and obviously if another country decides to require vaccine passports for any visiting tourists there’s not a lot we can do about it. However, last week, Boris Johnson stated that he would not be averse to the idea of pubs requiring them to gain entry.
Not surprisingly, this idea went down like a cup of cold sick with both licensees and pubgoers. I ran a poll on Twitter to gauge reaction, which was widely retweeted. This showed a strong majority against, but a disappointingly large minority who didn’t see a problem.
We have had vaccinations of various kinds in this country for over a century, but they have never been compulsory, and nor have we ever sought to restrict the freedoms of those who have not been vaccinated, so this would be completely unprecedented. Indeed, Johnson’s former ministerial colleague David Davis has suggested it might well be illegal, and would be likely to lead to court cases. On the face of it, he certainly seems to be correct, both in terms of medical discrimination and indirect discrimination against less vaccinated groups. It would probably need to be implemented either under the emergency Covid legislation or by an amendment of the Equality Act to create a specific exemption.
POLL: Regardless of your own vaccination status, would you be happy to visit a pub that demanded a vaccine passport?— Missing-the-Pub Curmudgeon 🙂🍻 (@oldmudgie) March 24, 2021
People would be up in arms if it was proposed that pubs should be able to refuse admission to those who could not prove they were HIV negative. Of course some smartarse will pipe up that the two are completely different, and indeed they are. But if you accept the concept of passports for Covid vaccinations, you have accepted the principle of discrimination on grounds of medical status, you are just arguing about where the line should be drawn.
There also seems to have been a considerable amount of moving the goalposts. Back last Autumn, vaccine supremo Kate Bingham stated that the objective would only be to vaccinate the over-60s and the clinically vulnerable, not the entire population. In January, newspapers were suggesting that 15 million jabs would do the trick, whereas we have already done twice that. As a general rule, vaccines don’t require anything like universal take-up to be effective across the whole population and achieve “herd immunity”. And the evidence so far is that under 10% of people are declining vaccination.
Creating such a vaccine passport would involve considerable practical difficulties. It would have to be made very difficult to forge. How would people who do not own smartphones be catered for? It seems that those without smartphones are increasingly being relegated to the status of second-class citizens in contemporary society. Some method would have to be found of registering people who have legitimate medical exemptions from vaccination.
Would it also have to apply to pub staff, or to people coming in to make deliveries or service equipment? How about the customer from the beer garden who just wants to come it to use the toilet? How would it apply to food courts in shopping centres and motorway service areas served by numerous outlets? A means would have to be found to incorporate tourists and other short-term visitors within the scheme. And there are plenty of people living in this country who for various reasons are off the radar of the NHS, and would be even more excluded from mainstream society.
The comparison has been made with track and trace, which pubs operated last summer, but in reality the two things are very different. Track and trace only applied to one person in each party, not everyone, and it was completed once people had entered pubs. There was no requirement to prove identity and, in reality, it was easy to spoof if you were so inclined. Participation was effectively voluntary.
Having to check every single customer’s details would place an onerous administrative burden on pubs. How would a small bar with one member of staff cope? And remember it wouldn’t just apply to pubs, but to restaurants, cafés, coffee shops and even takeaways with a few inside seats and tables. And should pubs really be expected to act as the government’s enforcement agents?
After the initial suggestion, the government have to some extent rowed back on the idea, saying it would be entirely voluntary and would only come into effect once all adults had been offered a vaccine. Wetherspoon’s and Shepherd Neame have, to their credit, rejected the idea. However, it would be conceivable that pubs would be offered the carrot of relaxed social distancing rules if they implemented it.
If it did end up being adopted by some pub operators, I suspect it would tend to be just the high-end gastropubs and a few up-their-own-arse craft bars. It’s very hard to see backstreet boozers in industrial towns wanting to take it up. And it could end up with the two-tier pub trade that might have come about if the proposal to exempt wet-only pubs from the smoking ban had come to reality, with some being pious, dull and joyless, and others lively, fun and rumbustious.
I suspect in reality this is something that won’t happen, as even if ministers wanted to press ahead with it, it would be derailed by the practical difficulties. And surely, assuming that the vaccines are effective, by the Autumn the number of Covid deaths and hospitalisations should in any case be minuscule and it would seem unnecessary and disproportionate.
But the idea that you should require a government-issued pass to take part in normal everyday activities is profoundly totalitarian. And where is the guarantee that it would not be extended to other medical statuses, or even become a generalised Chinese-style social credit pass? It has been very depressing to see how, during the Covid crisis, so many people seem to have accepted or even positively welcomed a restriction of their freedoms that in some respects has gone beyond even that which applied during World War II. It becomes easier to understand how the Nazis were able to achieve such a level of public acquiescence in their totalitarian programme.