Covid passports: access to heaven or hell?

Today, 11:30 am, the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus will hold an expert evidence session, discussing the use of covid passports, for both domestic use and international travel. This comes ahead of the government’s expected announcement on Friday, of a ‘green list’ of countries we will be allowed to travel to. Watch the session livestreamed via social media. Here, Martin Brooks looks at the many questions still unanswered.

Yorkshire is significantly the worst performing English region for infection rates, at 1 in 530, according to ONS data from 28 April. In fact, Yorkshire has four of the remaining 11 hotspots. Will covid passports help with establishing new freedoms, and are they the right way to go?

The general relief that covid regulations are being relaxed is palpable. Like prisoners jailed for someone else’s crime, we are now celebrating after our two previous applications for parole were rejected.

Partly returning to the ‘old normal’

Drivers are jostling for road space again; traffic jams have reappeared along with ‘old normal’ levels of CO2 emissions. Hairdressers are setting about their clients’ locks with a blade-flashing zeal not seen since the fencing competition at the 2012 Olympics. Getting drunk outside the home is a favourite way of asserting that the new normal will be the old normal but with more booze. Wearing masks is in rapid decline, and closely mingling groups are enjoying their release back into the wild.

To signal the pandemic restrictions are over, we crave the restoration of old freedoms to be social beings, leisure-seekers or business people. For all those purposes, we are desperate to come and go as we please, at home or abroad.

Many triumphant survivors of the pandemic, especially the double-jabbed ones, want a place at the front of the queue for a rapid return to a familiar, functioning world. We hanker for a rite of passage undeterred by the possibility we are vulnerable to the virus or capable of spreading it.

Covid passports: an obstacle to normality?

Suddenly, a covid passport has become the gateway to the future. New normal or old normal, who cares as long as it bestows on us the right to sail through pub doors, travel bookings, restaurant queues or border controls?

We should all care, especially in Yorkshire.

The politicians’ initial response to the idea of a covid passport in the UK was guarded to say the least. Objections range from the potential cost; the view ‘it’s not very British’; the social discrimination it would create. In just two months, all caution has evaporated.

Politicians and business are now keen to get the economy rolling again. Having made inroads into vaccinating their populations, most European countries have seized on a ‘covid passport’ as the way to get their economies back on track for the summer. Since 21st April, over 300,000 people per day have tested positive in India, for what is clearly a highly infectious variant.

The immediate issues raised about a covid passport were trivial. What’s the best name for it? What colour will it be? Will it be just digital, a laminated thingy or a booklet, ideal for recording future vaccinations?

Key questions about covid passports

The more fundamental questions are:

  • What reliable ‘viral status’ can a covid passport give the holder based on current scientific knowledge?
  • Is the passport a good idea from a national and international public health perspective?

During this pandemic, a huge number of issues emerged to show how much we still need to learn.

The obvious medical questions are:

  • How do some people act as carriers without showing symptoms?
  • How immune are we, and for how long, after we receive the vaccine?
  • Is the level of immunity achieved a function of the virus variant, the vaccine used, or the biochemistry of the individual themselves?
  • After we’ve been vaccinated, can we still be carriers?
  • How long does it take for immunity to decline below a safe level after a full course of vaccine, and how do we define safe?
  • What level of immunity do the available vaccines achieve across different age ranges?
  • Can long covid sufferers pass on the infection for the whole period before and after their symptoms appear or reappear?
  • What is the optimum re-vaccination frequency to maintain a dependable level of mass immunity against known variants?
  • Will passport holders ‘own up’ if they experience symptoms, rather than cancel their travel plans?
  • Will passports help or hinder the suppression of the UK’s persistent infection hotspots?

There are also logistical questions about sustaining the immunity we need our passports to confer:

  • Can manufacturers respond to the demands for both replenishment of old vaccines and the additional production of new ones?
  • Will enough staff be available to administer the vaccines, to maintain a constantly rolling vaccination programme to keep up with emerging variants?
  • Given that renewal dates built into passports will lapse, can prompt re-vaccinations be assured?

New variants, vaccines and passports

It now seems certain that new variants will need new vaccines for which the answers to all the above questions cannot yet be known. The Indian variant is pointing in that direction.

In the context of these partially answered or unanswered questions, can anyone be sure they are free of infection today and immune from infection tomorrow? Creating the illusion of broad-spectrum covid immunity based on a digital or other licence is not only dangerous, it is irresponsible. It could hasten the time when precautionary behaviour is so lax that we are back in another wave of deaths and serious illnesses.

This is not doom-mongering or over-caution. It’s respecting what we’ve learnt so far and adopting an intelligent, mature response as we try again to emerge from the pandemic.

In the days when the medical experts were giving daily briefings from Downing Street on the progress of the virus and our response to it, these issues might have been raised, if not by the experts themselves, by the media. Since June 2020 the government cancelled daily briefings. They are now scheduled as needed in the government’s judgment and kept to their agenda.

Given the government’s track record, it’s understandable they would want to avoid the daily scrutiny of the horrors we were going through because of their inept handling of the virus during most of 2020.

The current silence from the experts about the merits and meaning of a covid passport is noticeable and unnerving. There’s a danger that we unwittingly collaborate in the Johnsonian delusion of believing that what we wish for can be willed into existence.

In our rush to get into heaven, let’s not find ourselves back in hell. Steady away, as we say in Yorkshire.

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