Can countries that have vaccinated most of their adult population throw out the lockdown rule book and return to a pre-Covid 19 normal? That, at heart, is the question the UK — most advanced of the world’s big economies in immunisations — is grappling with as it considers plans for vaccine passports, or “Covid status certificates”. A vocal opposition warns these would be divisive and discriminatory. Given the risk of vaccine-resistant strains, however, some ongoing safeguards will be needed. Handled properly, a certification scheme incorporating both jabs and testing strikes a sensible balance.
Some form of vaccine passport already seems inevitable for international travel; several schemes are under way. The question is whether to require something similar for domestic venues. Under plans Boris Johnson’s government is considering for England, a digital or paper certificate would show if a person had been vaccinated, had a negative lateral flow or PCR test from that day or the day before, or was immune after contracting Covid in the previous six months.
This would be required to enter higher-risk environments such as theatres, sports stadiums, night clubs and music festivals, but not for public transport, public services or essential shops. It would not be needed, initially, for pubs — but might be introduced later as an option that could allow bars to operate at higher capacity. Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon says similar plans will be considered.
Several dozen dissenting MPs at Westminster say once the vulnerable are vaccine-protected, normal life should resume. By then, they suggest, the population can live with Covid as with annual flu outbreaks. Passports or certificates would unfairly divide society into the jabbed, who can swan into nightclubs and planes, and the unjabbed who must faff repeatedly with swabs.
Arguing coronavirus must one day be treated like the flu is right in the long run. But we are not there yet. Since vaccines emerged, so have new variants that are more contagious and sometimes more resistant to jabs. Even when immunisation programmes are done, large chunks of the population will not be vaccinated, including schoolchildren and those who cannot or choose not to receive the jab. Being vaccinated may not entirely prevent transmission. Vaccinating all countries will be the work of years, not months. While pools of infection exist, so does the risk of resistant outbreaks that could again swamp health systems.
That does not mean locking down everyone for ever more. It does mean aiming for a “new normal” that balances the rewards of vaccines in allowing economies to reopen with necessary controls on continued infections.
The government’s approach might cause brief delays for all entrants to some locations, and slightly greater inconvenience for some. But it would not cause serious discrimination since no one with immunity or negative Covid status would be barred. Inconvenience will be lessened by plans to provide lateral flow tests to households. It would also give companies scope to operate their own schemes, provided — as the government insists — these respect equality legislation.
Where scepticism is merited is in the ability of a government that has mishandled most of its Covid response bar vaccinations to manage a complex and sensitive scheme. A functioning app, along with sound and comprehensive guidelines, are needed fast. If the gap between intention and implementation is as wide as it has so often been over the past 15 months, chaos and confusion — or the two-tier society critics worry about — could still ensue.