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The problem with vaccine passports

Government, newsmakers and the general public struggle with the ethical dilemmas that they perceive in the new international roll-out of vaccine passports: pieces of paper, or electronic scans on a mobile telephone, that confirm a specific person to have received a given set of inoculations against Covid-19 that will protect them and society at large. The idea is that entry to public spaces with large numbers of people close together, whether they be supermarkets, bars, restaurants, gyms or nightclubs, will require the presentation of a vaccine passport by a person wishing to gain entry.


But in fact there are no ethical dilemmas at all in the use of vaccine passports. These schemes face a far more fundamental challenge: they just don't work.

The problem with vaccine passports is that they cannot be enforced - by anyone. This is so trivially obvious that it ought not need explaining. But nobody seems to understand why vaccine passports are a worthless policy instrument, and hence the following article will explain why this is so.


Several months ago, one government after the other came out in unison to declare that vacciine passports would not be employed by them, ostensibly on various human rights, civil liberties and non-discrimination grounds. The beginning of the debate was so unusual that this alone calls for some explanation.


The civil liberties case against vaccine passports seems substantially weaker that the civil liberties case against drivers' licences. The logic behind drivers' licences is straightforward enough: people who can't drive are a greater risk of causing harm to themselves and others if they drive cars. Because people cannot be relied upon to self-regulate (I.e. to establish communally agreed standards for driving competence enforced by shame, loss of reputation etcetera), there is a case for government intervention. Government will assess capacity to drive by implementing driving tests, and by removing from people their licences to drive who act irresponsibly while driving (for example, being drunk or high or narcotics). Those who are caught driving without a licence invite prosecution. Yes, in some formal sense civil liberties are infringed by such a system (the government is interfering with or regulatng the right to drive); but there is an overwhelming public good in doing this, namely reducing the number of harmful or lethal interactions involving cars. This is not a civil rights issue.


When governments started expressing their own opposition to Covid-19 vaccine passports in late 2020 and early 2021, they employed arguments that flew in the face of the driver's licence logic. Covid-19 is a dangerous and sometimes deadly disease, far more dangerous than driving a car or being near to someone who does; and therefore governments have proper business in regulating the freedom of people who might be carriers, just as governments have a business in regulating the freedom of people who might cause car crashes. "But pregnant women are not advised to take the vaccine; therefore vaccine passports discriminate against them." This is like arguing that quadriplegics cannot drive cars, and hence the issuance of drivers' licences only to people who are not quadriplegics discriminates against quadraplegics. It's a purely formal argument; plenty of discrimination is obviously justified in the interests of the greater good. And that is the plain argument in favour of vaccine passports.


All people are made different; some of them have different strengths and propensities; and hence it is in the greater good that those naturally having qualities whose behaviour, unregulated, may be dangerous to themselves or to others should have that behaviour regulated by the state. To argue otherwise is as silly as saying that everyone should have the right to fly an aeroplane, even though being a pilot requires a skill set that only relatively few people possess: being calm, having a capacity for multi-tasking, keen eyesight, geographical and meteorological skills, and so forth.


In virus pandemics, people likewise differ in their reaction to the contraction of the virus and potential consequent illness. Some people have suffered from the Covid-19 illness already, and some having been vaccinated. People in those categories pose far lower danger to the public health than do people without these attributes. Hence relying upon vaccination passports - requiring that public spaces demand a person holds a so-called vaccine passport upon entry - seems substantially less discriminatory than the discrimination applied against bad pilots or poor drivers. After all, unlike with a pilot's licence, you can just go to a medical centre to obtain a vaccine without fuss. Indeed in many or even most countries, it may be free. True, a small proportion of the population may be advised not to take the vaccine. But that is no different in principle than the quadriplegic who is advised not to drive, or the blind man who is advised not to fly an aircraft.


Indeed vaccine passport regimes create positive incentives. For those identified with so-called vaccine hesitancy (I.e. irrational aversion to receiving what the statistics demonstrate to be an overwhelmingly harmless shot in the arm), vaccine passports provide a material incentive for people inclined to treat vaccinatory inoculation irrationally to cease being so silly and to adopt a more rational approach to an imperative universal public health process. Otherwise there will be large sectors of public activities from which they will be excluded. The greater the proportion of a population that has been vaccinated, the better for the society's public health goals.


Having created the case in favour of vaccine passports, let us now demolish it.


The principal problem with vaccine passports are ones of enforcement. Let us suppose that a vaccination passport regime is supposed to apply to nightclubs. A nightclub handling (say) 400 people is required to check everybody's vaccination passports at the door. If the person doesn't have one, then they can't come in.


What is the incentive to enforce such a rule, turning away paying customers because they do not have a government-issued piece of paper? The answer is nothing. Will the Police arrive, and demand to see everyone's vaccine passport? No they will not, because this task is too colossal and the Police cannot undertake it given limited resources and provided an assumption that they cease not to interfere too severely with the lives of the general public. What about forged papers? With Photoshop, a piece of image-editing software that anyone can learn to use in barely a few minutes, forged vaccination certificates are too easy to create. Indeed it is so easy that forgery services might be imagined to arise in common locations near nightlife and shopping venues. Forgery is so ludicrously easy in the present day of advanced electronic manipulation of images. Moreover the incentives of managers of establishments required to passport-check their guests so strong to overlook fraudulent documents, that the system must become a regime of institutionalised forgery which is bad for rule of law.

What about requiring scanning of a QR code? This is likewise susceptible to forgery; the QR code can link to a forged certificate of vaccination. Indeed this sort of forgery is even easier than paper forgery. Do not imagine you can spot these information technology forgeries by ensuring QR codes refer only to government websites. There are innumerable opportunities for electronic forgeries, including reference for example to xxx@covid.gov.uk (a domain name it is possible, with ease, to buy), rather than xxx@nhs.uk (one already owned by the UK government). The problem is amplified exponentially when one considers how to verify foreign vaccine passports. With significant traffic numbers, there is neither the capacity nor the incentive on the part of regulated institutions to check all the passport vaccines that they might be presented with. Nor is there anything like the requisite Police capacity to conduct spot checks - in any country in the world. Put plainly, no country has enough Police Officers, particularly presuming there are other crimes for them to detect and investigate.


The next issue is consider is that requiring everyone entering a venue where people are at close quarters to carry vaccine passports, even if perfectly enforced (which we have seen that it cannot be), will not substantially reduce the public health risk involved in such a venue welcoming customers. In fact the opposite turns out to be true, and hence the ostensible benefits of vaccine passports are premised upon a logic entirely bogus.


Vaccines do not prevent people from catching Covid. Rather they reduce the severity of symptoms of those catching it - which is everyone inhaling infected air water droplets. In many or even most cases, vaccination might render the beneficiaries of inoculation symptomless carriers - or the symptoms are so mild that people do not get tested for Covid-19 and/or just go about their daily lives regardless. In other words, Covid-19 vaccination encourages symptomless (or mostly symptomless) untested virus-carriers to socialise, thereby spreading the disease, rather than self-isolate which is what they might otherwise do. True, the downsides of contracting Covid-19 are substantially less for a vaccinated person. But the person being protected by the Covid vaccines is the vaccinated person himself, not others. Therefore the logic of vaccine selfishness (vaccination's principal beneficiary is the vaccinated person) renders vaccine passports meaningless. A vaccinated person does not need a vaccine passport to know they have been vaccinated.


Imagine a rule that you could not enter a restaurant or other social establishment between the months of November and February without a 'flu vaccination certificate. Would you, as an unvaccinated potential victim of influenza, freel reassured by such a rule? It seems unlikely. Requiring other venue users to hold vaccination passports, who may have lesser symptoms such that it is more likely they will use the common venue at the same time as you, will go up. Hence the prospects of your acquiring 'flu will go up. Vaccine passports ensure that our nightclubs and gyms are stuffed with super-carriers of viruses. This is not a net benefit for anyone.


The important point about vaccine passports is not that you have a piece of paper showing that you have been inoculated; but rather that you have actually been inoculated. This is what protects people - not waving around pieces of paper. The focus of government activity should shift away from regulating public spaces with a miscellany of incompatible, inefficient and easily forgeable pieces of paper of tenuous value that nevertheless fit so intimately within the culture of the regulatory state to which we have become accustomed. Instead government's efforts, in a game of balancing individual liberty against the public good, should be diverted to the activities involved in coercing people who have no excuse to be vaccine hesitant into being vaccinated.


Consider daily fines. If you don't get vaccinated, and you can't obtain a doctor's certificate (confined by a set of statutory exemptions why you should be excused from the duty to be vaccinated), then you are fined USD10 per day for missing government-prescribed vaccination deadlines. That would solve the problem of vaccine hesitancy. The individual loss of liberty is trite, when we are aiming to save millions of lives worldwide. That might seem like an extreme idea in the current climate; but eventually governments become logical, notwithstanding the predilections of their citizens to be otherwise. I predict that compulsory vaccination is not far off. It is a far better idea than vaccine passports, a concept that is frankly risible.

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