IN the next few crucial months, we can expect a flurry of policy developments and announcements, establishing a post-lockdown regime.
Though it will likely mean more freedoms to engage in more ‘normal’ patterns of life, it will be no less structured, stringent and regulated – indeed, we may even need to be more alert to new rules than we have been until now.
What’s more, this new regime of mediated freedom will be no less subject to the social and economic interests which have made themselves apparent at every turn of the pandemic. Above all else, there will be an ongoing pressure from big business to organise the end of lockdowns in accordance with their search for profits.
So in whose interests are so called ‘vaccine passports’?
The UK Government has sanctioned the development of a so-called “Covid status certification” scheme, so that large-scale events like pop concerts and major sporting events can take place. This would give access status to three different groups of persons: those who have received vaccination, those who have recently tested negative to Covid-19 before a given event, and those who had already had the virus and thus developed a natural immunity. It should be noted that, as far as we understand, none of these three groups of people are certainly ‘Covid-19 free’. Instead, they could be thought to present a generally lower risk of spreading the virus.
The UK Government has also stated that this scheme would have an international application as an “inevitability”. This could be added to a “traffic light” system of international travel from countries with varying degrees of risk.
The Scottish Government, true to its form over the last year, has followed this general approach but with more cautious soundings. Jeane Freeman announced a certificate scheme was being contemplated for use in Scotland, but that this would be a digital item. Theoretically, this would be to avoid the physical infrastructure of health services in Scotland being overwhelmed.
Freeman said: “I don’t want to put an unnecessary burden on the health service, on our GP practices for example with everyone going to them looking to get the bit of paper that says ‘I’ve been vaccinated’, because I want those GP practices to be able to return as quickly as it’s possible to delivering all the services they were before the pandemic.”
Freeman also worried out loud about the impact of such a scheme of “ethical, equality and practical questions”, though didn’t give much more information on what that might mean. But it is obvious from the outset that such a scheme would impact people very differently. This has been implicit (and occasionally deliberately obscured by government policy) throughout the pandemic.
The idea of vaccine passports and certificate schemes re-poses a whole range of such problems. Won’t this allow private corporations (who dominate large scale events management in the UK) to demand sensitive medical information from customers seeking access to public events? Even worse, could these companies demand such information even from staff, and could such measures be used to foist even more labour discipline on already low-paid and precarious workers?
This information would also be extremely financially valuable, and there is a danger it could be traded. As noted, Freeman’s notion that certificates ought to be digitised relates to concerns about GP surgeries being overwhelmed by demand for sought-after paper work. But there will be fears about fraud, profiteering and data leaks from a digital scheme.
As economist James Meadway has argued: “We have all already taken part in a decade-long experiment in trusting new data collection agencies with our personal data. And judging by how much information we’ve handed over, ‘function creep’ – when the introduction of a technology for one purpose leads gradually to its use in others – in coronavirus data collection looks to be highly likely. The big tech business models pretty much demand the accumulation of greater and greater volumes of personal data, imposing function creep virtually as a business model.”
Access and inequality
Any certificate or passport scheme would automatically exclude all those who cannot take the vaccines for health reasons, and assuming such a scheme would operate through mobile phones, this would exclude 16 per cent of the population – mostly poorer and older people.
But beyond these relatively small populations, there are also questions over how people with disabilities and other large groups are integrated into this process – and at what point. Those with natural immunity, or who have revived even both vaccine jabs, let alone those who recently tested negative, can still pass on the virus. Will those from vulnerable groups be able to attend mass gatherings in spite of this?
It has been noted that young people have been disproportionately hit by the economic consequences of the pandemic. With the danger of fresh job losses, attacks on conditions and rent and house prices rising, more control over young people, and their social exclusion even as they provide much of the labour to the economy, will become another source of resentment.
It is over precisely some of these worries that the UK Labour party has pledged to oppose current passport schemes, forcing the Conservative leadership into a conflict with some of its more libertarian-minded back-benches. Freeman has pledged to watch for how such schemes pan out down south, so that the scheme will become contentious across the piece. Recent days may determined whether vaccine passports become another scandal of the pandemic era.