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Covid Has Divided Society. Vaccine Passports Will Make It Worse

  • February 26, 2021

Any discussion on vaccination seems guaranteed to polarise public opinion. The most recent iteration of debate concerns the ethics, value and practicalities of rumoured so-called ‘vaccine passports’, issued by the government, which would allow those who have been vaccinated to follow less stringent lockdown rules and have greater freedom of movement.

Boris Johnson’s announcement of England’s ‘roadmap’ has the nation fixated on regaining their civil liberties after almost a year of restrictions – and, at face value, vaccine passports sound like a plausible path towards enabling this vision. But they are littered with scientific and ethical dilemmas.

First, the science. The rationale for verifying vaccination is twofold: to protect the individual from society, and ensure they themselves are of low risk to the rest of society too. For this to work, vaccines must demonstrate their ability to provide twofold security – fortunately, clinical trials across all coronavirus vaccines suggest substantial protection against severe disease progression and death. 

Preliminary data from Israel also suggests that symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission can be significantly thwarted. Still, several known unknowns remain; in particular, the resilience of vaccine protection to current (and inevitable future) Covid variants, and the duration of immunity. 

Second, there are the ethics. Vaccine passports risk dividing society. In the UK, where older groups have been prioritised, we could see the country split into an older, vaccinated group and a younger group stuck inside awaiting their jabs. Can we say vaccine passports would really give us freedom if the population is effectively segregated? History accounts for many more failures in this approach than successes.

Throughout the pandemic, pervasive inequalities have been exposed and exploited by the virus. The proposition of vaccine passports will only exacerbate these inequalities further.

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