The push for vaccine passports ignores the arguments raging around them | Zoe Williams

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Vaccinations are the high point of human reason. Devised under clinical conditions by scientists interested only in what works, they represent the mastery of the rational world over chaotic nature; and also, of course, they save lives. Vaccine passports, then, should in theory be no more than the rubber stamp of reason. So why does the policy, not to mention the discussion surrounding it, look so irrational?

In late July, shortly after nightclubs had reopened for the first time in over a year, Boris Johnson appeared to go against his previous approach – let’s call it, for brevity, “loosey goosey” – and announced a plan to make “full vaccination the condition of entry” to nightclubs and other crowded indoor events. The prime minister didn’t have the experience of Boardmasters, the Cornish festival in mid-August, which seeded so many Covid infections that the county, had it been abroad, would have been placed on the red list. Yet he did have that data by this week, when he restated this intention.

So he knew that a Covid passport requirement wasn’t decisive in the spread of infection. The festival organisers already had a Covid-status check in place, with every ticketholder aged over 11 required to show either a recent negative test result or a vaccination status. It must have been a disappointment to everyone concerned, that those two failsafes – the open air, and the vaccine – did, in 4,700 cases, fail. Yet it is unlikely that a legal or regulatory requirement to do the very thing the organisers already did would have made a difference.

To be fair, the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, was clear on this point: vaccine certificates were aimed more at human behaviour than viral load, to “coax and cajole” young people into getting jabbed. When he made this point in July, 35% of young people were still unvaccinated. The cohort had higher vaccine hesitancy, both self-reported and observable, than any other age group. Arguably, a watch-and-wait approach would have worked better. The 18-to-39s had only been offered the vaccine relatively recently, and probably weren’t in as much minute-to-minute contact with their GPs as the over-80s, with whom they were negatively compared.

Subsequent research has suggested that compelling anti-vaxxers to take it on pain of missing out would only make them more likely to refuse: this does make a stubborn sense when you run the psychometrics. Anti-vaxxers, in their voluble, protesting form, imagine themselves as independent thinkers, lone wolves, immune to groupthink. “Roll over or you won’t be allowed to join the group” works as neither carrot nor stick.

So if a passport wouldn’t solve infection rates or refusenik behaviour, the idea starts to look either panicked and emotional (quick, try something, doesn’t matter what) or, at best, tangential (this might not solve the stated problem, but it will signal the norm we expect). This makes sense against the backdrop of the pandemic. The normal way of executing public policy is dispassionate analysis leading to defendable decisions, with enough political capital and goodwill that those decisions will stick, even if they’re unpopular. A pattern of delay, incompetence and dishonesty has corroded the goodwill, and there is an understandable high tension in the government’s decision-making, discernible in its jerky querulousness.

Yet the wider discussion around vaccination is, if anything, more emotional still. Being anti-vax can spring from an amorphous distrust of authority, a reflexive suspicion of institutions and disbelief that they have your best interests at heart. These are the good anti-vaxxers, the ones discussed with respect (though rarely included) by news magazine formats considering the lower uptake amongst certain black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. The noisier anti-vaxxers, the ones who take distress flares to protest marches and call you “sheeple” when you wear a mask, are powered by a splenetic, conspiracist mulch of ego over-supply and hand-me-down anti-expertise. These are the bad anti-vaxxers; and here it becomes necessary to recognise that the anti-anti-vaxxers are also pretty emotional.

We put a huge accent on their failure of civic duty, the sheer selfishness of endangering others on the grounds of a Facebook hoax, as if the question was entirely moral. If we were purely, or even fractionally more rational, we would note that, in the first instance, anti-vaxxers are endangering themselves, whereupon the debate would have to become more compassionate, or just dissolve in its own acid inconsistencies. If the expert advice tells you that castigating and punishing people who won’t take the vaccine doesn’t solve the problem, what kind of expert-lover are you to ignore it?

Instead of teasing out the inconsistencies and subconscious allegiances influencing both sides in an attempt to discover what’s driving the conversation into such raging territory, instead we attach those emotions to ever more conceptual, intractable binaries: what’s more important, civil liberties or public health? Where does your inalienable right to bodily autonomy threaten my right to life?

The problem isn’t so much that these abstracts are hard to resolve – rather, that if you rush the resolution with concrete solutions before the emotions are heard or acknowledged, you end up in territory that doesn’t solve anything.

Much as I hate to harp on, it does remind me a little of Brexit. Leavers wanted to stick two fingers up at the establishment, remainers wanted to stick two fingers up at the leavers, and we just ended up sticking all our relevant, insulting digits up at the people who delivered our food to supermarkets. The emotions weren’t ready then to hit the concrete, and they’re not ready now.

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