How many different ways can you say no? On the evidence of the comments underneath Michael Gove’s Telegraph article requesting feedback on the idea of domestic vaccine passports, 8,000 ways and counting.
What’s striking is not just the overwhelmingly negative response but the genuine rage on display from this normally phlegmatic readership. And it’s not just Tories – from the growing revolt across the political spectrum it seems that, whatever your leanings, there’s something in the concept of government-issued health certificates that viscerally offends.
For Conservatives, it is the injection of state interference into everyday life that feels sinister. A state-approved health status monitor threatens to shift us from a being free-by-default people, left alone unless we do something wrong, to requiring a renewable licence to participate in society.
If high-minded Tories reject the scheme on principle, their more pragmatic Conservative counterparts have practical objections. What’s the point of it? If the scheme is not going to be rolled out until later in the year when everybody has been offered a vaccine and a very high proportion of people are immune, why would we need to worry about small numbers of infectious people anyway? The whole point of herd immunity is that if someone is wandering around with an active Covid infection they will be surrounded at all stages by enough immune people to prevent the outbreak getting very far.
The same goes for someone in the stalls of a theatre or the stands of a football stadium. Our aim was meant to be to reach a point where we could be relaxed about the unvaccinated minority, not increasingly paranoid.
Monday’s update from the PM if anything made the practicalities even less convincing. Why would a busy pub be kept out of the scheme but an outside football stadium kept in? Nightclubs have been explicitly mentioned as reopening in June. Are we really to believe that, having opened to young people as normal, they will suddenly start requiring certification later in the year?
Centrist liberals meanwhile (which at least in theory includes the Liberal Democrats) are more moved by the questions of due process and discrimination. They worry about the groups excluded by such a policy, and whether the promised checks and balances will work.
Human rights experts like Adam Wagner have been vocal about the tendency of “temporary” powers to stick around long after promised “sunset clauses” (many of the emergency powers brought in after 9/11 are still there). The new technology and efficient databases entailed by vaccine passports make it even less likely that they would simply vanish after a year.
To complete the picture, names like Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott have also been added to the list of MPs opposing domestic passporting. These are hardly small-state libertarians, but from their vantage point the scheme perhaps looks like an instrument of class and power. Realistically, which groups will be least likely to benefit from these certificates? Poorer and older people who don’t have smartphones or can’t afford tests. The affluent and powerful will find a way to make this scheme work for them because they always do.
No doubt they are also concerned by evidence that vaccine hesitancy is highest among ethnic minority groups. The prospect of mass events at which minority Brits are disproportionately excluded should give everyone pause.
If the Government is determined, it could probably push a domestic vaccine passport scheme through. Keir Starmer’s concerns, raised in an interview with this newspaper, will probably be bought off with some concessions; and the opinion polls, for now, continue to show a majority of voters unfazed by the idea if, in return, they can get back to normal.
But as Michael Gove witnessed rather abruptly on these pages, it has struck a chord. After a year of waving through Covid measures with minimal resistance, it looks like vaccine passports might be the thing that finally awakens some political protest. Although a full U-turn or defeat is unlikely, the end result could be that the policy is so watered down that it is either forgotten about or collapses in on itself.
Freddie Sayers is the executive editor of UnHerd