By Michael Fraser
In a year and a half of an enduring Covid-19 pandemic during which we have seen freedoms and rights stripped like never before, with people denied the right to visit dying relatives in hospitals, unable to sit next to grieving loved ones at funerals and prevented treatment for terminal illnesses we have finally reached the zenith – the final indignity. Vaccine passports. Or so is the case in Scotland, at least.
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Yes, the great fear that so many of us predicted and rallied against – pro-vaccination and anti-vaccination alike – has now arrived in Scotland and will take effect from the end of September. This is of course despite the Scottish government’s opposition to the UK government’s initial plans to implement them. What could possibly have changed the minds of the notoriously intractable separatists?
The British Government has, for the moment, u-turned on the issue of vaccine passports. Perhaps acutely aware of the negative reaction north of the border following the SNP’s announcement, the plans have been shelved for the time being, albeit kept in ‘reserve’ for a potential introduction. With any luck, this reserve gets about as much exposure as I did as a reserve at a recent rugby match. None.
It is quite possible to be anti-vaccine passports without being against the vaccine itself. There are myriad reasons for not wanting a passport that proves you have or haven’t been vaccinated against Covid-19. For many years, international travel to certain countries has come with the requirement that one is vaccinated against any number of viruses.
This is overwhelmingly accepted by the public. What we should not do is conflate the two ideas, however. If one didn’t wish to get vaccinated against tuberculosis they had the option not to travel to a country where they were required to do so. Domestic vaccine passports, on the other hand, would offer us no such choice. Going about one’s everyday life would now require proof of vaccination, which in a liberal democracy seems Orwellian in the extreme.
Not only are vaccine passports a fundamental assault on the rights of all, they will also be entirely ineffectual at actually stopping the spread of the virus. The only immunity that vaccine passports can be guaranteed in securing is immunity from criticism or blame from certain sanctimonious sections of the commentariat and public. Furthermore, the prospect of vaccine passports raises uncomfortable questions about what could yet come. Is a full-scale ID system next for the country, or even something akin to China’s social credit system? Such fears can easily be dismissed as hyperbolic or as conspiracy theories, but so too would vaccine passports have been just 18 months ago.
A very real concern is how divided a vaccine passport would render society. Not only does it risk establishing a two-tier society based on one’s vaccination status, but it also risks exacerbating already present inequalities. Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) members of society show less confidence in the vaccine and as such are less likely to get vaccinated. Consequently, establishing domestic vaccine passports comes with the risk of excluding BAME citizens from participating in wide areas of society. At a time where systemic racism is under the microscope more than ever, this should concern us all.
Whilst all of us wish to navigate our way out of this pandemic and the restrictions imposed on us, it is imperative that we do not allow this to come at the expense of our basic civil rights and liberties. If history has taught us anything it is that relinquishing freedoms rarely ever results in getting them back. Additionally, public scepticism over wide-scale data collection is anything but ill-founded, given that throughout the pandemic we have witnessed a series of data leaks and breaches.
Whatever your opinion on vaccinations, we should all agree that the introduction of passports based on health status are at best illiberal and at worst sinister. We have regularly been told over the last decade, through such tribulations as austerity and pandemics, that we are ‘all in this together’. Sceptical as many of us were at that particular government slogan, we should heed it in these unprecedented times and the best way in which to do that is for us all to come together and firmly reject a vaccine passport that is divisive, undemocratic and exclusionary.
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