Debate: are vaccine passports our ticket to freedom?

Talk of “vaccine passports” have dominated news headlines in recent weeks, proving to be a polarising topic of national conversation. To comprehend this latest addition to the new pandemic language, Palatinate Comment asked two contributors for their opinion on the merits and feasibility of such a proposal.

For: a considered approach would provide necessary post-pandemic security

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Vaccine passports offer at first glance a glimpse to a more hopeful future. They unlock reunions with families, a return to work or study, and incentivise a reduction in vaccine hesitancy. However, the system does raise concerns about the extent of government interference which is acceptable in our daily lives, and the potential for it to exacerbate divides in society. Despite this, the key to accepting vaccine passports is to note that they are, in fact, nothing new.

The idea behind the passport is, in essence, John Stuart Mill’s harm principle: our actions should not be controlled by the state unless they cause sufficient harm to others. This principle is commonplace in our lives, from pre-school rules to the criminal justice system. The passport works in this manner, preventing the unvaccinated from being in spaces where they could wreak deadly harm. This idea is one we have already accepted.

A passport scheme is rooted in ideas which are already common in our lives

Nonetheless, we cannot use this principle to justify a one-size-fits-all approach. We must consider the extent of harm involved. It requires nuance. For example, consider the use of this system in returning to work. Where someone works closely with vulnerable people, such as a hospital, the potential for serious harm is far greater than, for example, someone who works in a small office. The use of a passport would not be justifiable for both groups. The system cannot be arbitrary.

We must also show care and consideration to the vaccine-hesitant. There are lessons to be learnt from Israel’s warning of a new hierarchy in society after their green card system was introduced. We must offer frequent testing as an alternative to vaccination to permit unvaccinated people access to the same spaces as the vaccinated. We must not overextend the use of the passport into areas where it is not necessary under the harm principle. In order for this to work, it demands careful examination of the potential risks each sector poses. There must be thorough modulation, but again, the idea behind this system is nothing new.

Therefore, a passport scheme could work. It is rooted in ideas that are already common in our lives. The system does, however, demand caution. A one-size-fits-all approach would be short-sighted and closed-minded. However, if done with due responsibility and consideration, it could provide a measure of security as we navigate into a post-pandemic world.

Against: the proposal heightens inequality by denying freedoms to certain sections of the population

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A seatbelt. They restrict but they protect. Seatbelt wearers are safe from the dangers outside the car. However, refuseniks expose themselves to danger. If one was to say that if you refused to wear a seatbelt you can no longer travel with anyone, is this fair?

The same way seatbelts prevent death, so do vaccines. Those who have vaccine passports can roam free without the threat of coronavirus infection. They can go to concerts, to the pub, eat in restaurants and be part of society. However, those that refuse vaccination are not guaranteed these freedoms. Although they are free from the vaccine, they are not free in society. Without the vaccine passport, they are prohibited from social activities those who are vaccinated are free to engage in. However, they must live with this restriction due to their unorthodox belief. Is this just?

The idea contradicts the very principle of a democratic, capitalist society

Take the Dutch Bible Belt village. This Dutch community hold the radical belief that vaccinations interfere with divine providence and therefore refuse to be vaccinated. In an interview with a Dutch newspaper, villager Jan Kluit refuses to give an “injection to God’s creatures”, believing that vaccines are unnatural and should not be injected into natural “creatures”. He is justified in believing this as Article 18 permits all beings the freedom to hold religious beliefs.

However, vaccine passports jeopardise these rights. Conflict arises as people’s rights are no longer unified but are prioritised. For this Dutch community, vaccine passports create conflict between the right to freedom of religion and the right to freedom. It forces them down two possible paths: remain faithful to their religion and not get vaccinated yet be stripped of their right to freedom; or go against their beliefs, get vaccinated and in return be free. Although vaccinations are not mandatory, if one wants to be part of society, they must be vaccinated. They must choose between their religion and freedom – a decision they should not have to make.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Ed Davey, supports this view, accusing the passports of “creeping authoritarianism” as although vaccinations mean we “get our freedoms back”, vaccine passports “take us in the other direction”. They contradict the very principle of a democratic, capitalist society as they only guarantee freedom to individuals whose beliefs align with vaccinations.

As it seems absurd that one cannot travel with anyone if they refuse to wear a seatbelt, vaccine passports increase inequality; inequalities that can be equalised by a negative coronavirus test.

Image: John Cameron via Unsplash.

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