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Monday, 26 September 2022
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Are Covid Passports the Future?
James Denseiow

Despite globalisation and the integration of economises like never before it is still the case that we live in a world divided across so many lines. Nationality, wealth, class, race and religion just to name a few that are the dominant factors in what freedoms we have or the chances of being able to easily provide for our families.


Covid and the new era of geopolitics that have followed the pandemic is generally accepted to be an accelerated evolution of existing trends rather than a revolution, and the potential for new divisions to be created as a by-product of Covid passports is a policy decision worthy of serious interrogation at a moral as well as practical level.


The dilemma is one that countries who are more progressed along their vaccination programme have the luxury of making. The policy is currently headline news in the UK whilst in neighbouring France the spread of new more infectious variants is forcing new lockdowns. In Syria, a country where war has gutted an effective ability to monitor the virus, primary schools have been closed indefinitely, whilst in nearby Saudi Arabia authorities said Monday that only people immunised against COVID-19 will be allowed to perform the year-round Umrah pilgrimage, starting from the holy month of Ramadan.


The most obvious starting point around passports proving that people have had a Covid vaccine is how it will allow residents of richer countries a freedom denied to citizens from poorer countries for potentially years to come. In many a sense it shines a light on how any opportunity for a global response to a global crisis was rejected in a more traditional every country for themselves race to protect their own populations.


Yet Covid passports will have domestic implications as well as international ones, with the global ones surely requiring some form of international agreement as to what would constitute satisfactory proof of protection. Could having had an AstraZeneca vaccine allow travel to the USA for example where the vaccine has yet to be approved by American regulators? Would individuals have had to have had two shots of a vaccine or one? What about those who for pre-existing health reasons are unable to have a vaccine?


Add to these fundamental questions an assessment of the state of Covid variants. For example, the huge risk to the UK of variants coming from Brazil that may render certain vaccines ineffective and therefore necessitate stricter travel restrictions regardless of whether that Brazilian resident has been vaccinated and the mind starts to boggle as to how this would work. Suddenly images of huge queues at embassies for Covid visas or airports full of people who’ve been turned back from flying spring to mind. Chaos is indeed a real possibility.


In the UK discussions around Covid passports are far more focused on the immediate domestic implications. Whilst having a vaccine is not compulsory it seems likely to be the case that having proof of vaccination will be needed to access concerts, sporting events and potentially the cinema and even restaurants. Now that over half of the British adult population has been vaccinated you can already observe a change in people’s behaviour in tandem with the unlocking of restrictions in the country. People have started to wear the stickers you receive upon having a vaccine out and about. Already something quite intimate, the state of your own immune system, is now being worn quite literally as a badge of pride and presumably a means of reassuring people around them.


The UK is planning to update a Covid app that was primarily designed to help contact tracing, turning it into a ticket to entertainment that will be denied those who don’t have it. Israel already has such a system with its “Green Book” leading some people to march in protest against the scheme, calling it tyrannical and saying it creates a privileged “vaccinated class” of people in a new two-tier society.


Yet the scale of opposition to the concept is generally small. The promise of a return to normality and an escape from the grinding isolation and restrictions of lockdowns are so appealing that it would appear that most are willing to accept this new proof of identity for domestic freedoms. At a global level the more onerous burdens of proof, perhaps both of a vaccine and recent testing, may suddenly make travel far more expensive that it has ever been and change the nature of modern tourism.


James Denselow


James Denselow