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God, I miss the pub. I miss pushing through the door and diving into a pool of sound, all chatter and laughter and sport on the telly. I miss the sight of people’s faces, friendly and relaxed and a bit flushed. I miss finding friends gathered around a table, bantering and gossiping, pausing only to place their order when I ask if anyone needs a drink. I miss weaving through the crowd, taking care not to spill pints or drop crisp packets, catching a flirty glance from a stranger out of the corner of my eye.
What I would give to go to the pub this evening and talk with my friends about everything and nothing. Since many of us work in technology, at some point the government’s “vaccine passports for the pub” plan would come up.
I’d say it is dumb. They would tell me that, no, I am the one who is dumb. We’d hash it out, order another round and set the world to rights. Sadly, it’s a conversation we won’t be having. We’re in lockdown. None of us has tasted a proper pint in months. We’ve had to debate what the prime minister, Boris Johnson, has called “papers for pints” over WhatsApp and FaceTime while sitting at home and walking in the park.
The good news is that pubs open for outdoor service from 12 April and for indoor service from 17 May. The bad news is that Johnson’s “papers for pints” plan is essentially a national ID card by stealth, one that would link our identity to our Covid status – whether we’ve been vaccinated, had a recent negative test or have antibodies.
The UK has already toyed with national ID cards. It rejected them in 2010. As Theresa May, then home secretary, explained in 2010: “This isn’t just about cost savings, it’s actually about the principle, it’s about getting the balance right between national security and civil liberties, and that’s what the new coalition government is doing.”
That was before coronavirus, of course, but just because we’re in a pandemic doesn’t mean that we stop caring about that balance.
Already, the Conservatives have announced plans to introduce a bill to make photo ID mandatory from 2023 for all UK-wide and English elections. There’s no obvious need for it: there was only one conviction for “personation” fraud in the UK in 2019.
Then, again, there would be no need to make photo ID mandatory at elections if people could simply use their “vaccine passport” – because, once we’ve built a system that links our identity to our health data and made this a condition of re-entering pubs, cinemas or concerts, or even our workplace, we could link it to other data too, public or private.
This could be used by more than just pub landlords or election officials. The data on our vaccine passports could be used by the police, just as Singapore’s authorities admitted in January to using contact-tracing data.
All this – effectively, as I say, a stealth national ID card without the necessary debate – when we don’t even know if vaccine passports would help to solve our biggest problem: stopping the spread of the virus. We don’t know how long immunity lasts. We don’t know to what extent vaccines reduce transmission, or by how much, or whether this varies depending on which vaccine we’ve had.
We don’t know how much such a system would cost, how we would know if it represented good value for money or whether our resources would be better invested in other solutions. We need to know the answers to those questions and we need the government to explain why it has done a U-turn on vaccine passports.
For months, ministers have been telling us that there are no plans for vaccine passports, while funding eight pilot schemes to test them. In January, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said: “We are not a papers-carrying country.” Yet, here we are, with the government reviewing plans to become just that.
Only last month, the vaccine minister, Nadhim Zahawi, ruled out vaccine passports, arguing that they could be “discriminatory” since it is not compulsory for people to get the vaccine. He was followed by the prime minister, who said: “What I don’t think we will have in this country is, as it were, vaccination passports to allow you to go to, say, the pub or something like that.”
Israel, Estonia, Sweden and Denmark are all countries that have introduced, or plan to introduce, vaccine passports for domestic use. There is a key difference: all of them already have a national ID card system. If we are to follow their example, we would first need an evidence-based explanation as to how vaccine passports will help to stop the spread of the virus.
Only days ago, it was reported that the vaccine passport was being considered purely as a “nudge” tool to push supposedly vaccine-hesitant young people to get the jab. We cannot abandon our civil liberties for such trickery. Far better to address any problem of vaccine hesitancy directly. Consent implies choice. Excluding people from society unless they get vaccinated is not a real choice. Surely we can find better ways to boost vaccine take-up?
The pandemic has made armchair public health experts of us all, but we need to hear from the real ones to know which trade-offs are necessary, and which are not, as we move into whatever phase is coming next. Throughout, we might keep in mind the Hippocratic oath: “First, do no harm.”
Stephanie Hare is writing a book on ethics and technology
Source: The Guardian
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