March 18, 2021 - 4:10pm

Are vaccine passports the fastest way back to normality or do they bring us a step closer towards a dystopian checkpoint state?

On today’s LockdownTV, Freddie Sayers heard from both sides of the debate. Making the case for vaccine passports was Kirsty Innes, Head of Digital Government for the Tony Blair Institute, whose recent paper called for the implementation of what she called ‘digital health passports’. Innes argues that, by using a QR code on people’s phones that shows a tick or cross indicator, passports would make it easier to “manage the risk” of the virus in certain settings (pubs, stadiums, care homes etc).

This, according to Silkie Carlo, Director of Big Brother Watch, a civil liberties group, is “alarming”. She warned that this kind of discrimination between the vaccinated and unvaccinated would lead to a “segregated surveillance society” that takes a big step towards mandatory vaccines. Given that Britain has administered 25 million doses, mostly to its vulnerable population, that should be a reason to liberalise — not clamp down on — society.

So is testing a possible solution? Carlo argued that the example of mass testing in schools serves as a cautionary example. Infection rates are low and there is a 0.1% false positive rate with the lateral tests being used, which means that some schoolchildren are being unfairly excluded.

Innes insisted that her plan would be to integrate testing status with the health pass so that everybody can use them. In other words, if someone did not want to take a vaccine, they could get tested before going to an event or establishment to prove that they did not have the virus. This may be expensive, but Innes stressed that tests are going to be a feature of our lifetime and will only get cheaper and more accurate. Ultimately, it is a price we have to pay for lifting restrictions and getting out of lockdown.

The concept that vaccine passports were a “route out of” lockdown is a false one, said Carlo. It is the “narrative of authoritarianism” in which people are presented with a choice of living under house arrest or living on tag. She argued that this “authoritarian dream where the population are treated like cattle” is driven by ideological and commercial reasons. Under the guise of biometrics, companies try to sell ‘silver-bullet solutions’ that trick people into believing that more surveillance will make their lives easier, much like vaccine passports.

In spite of Innes’s claim that the passports would be temporary and regulated, Carlo pointed out that, if we have learnt anything from the 9/11 years, it should be to not make extreme and reactive policies that change the way that we live.

Carlo also argued that vaccine passports will have a negative psychological impact on the population too: if the passports are seen as a kind of freedom pass to live safely, that, if taken away, would be a major source of anxiety for the population.

“Having a tool available and putting it to use are two separate things” said Innes. Britain is a parliamentary democracy with strong liberal values and we as a society would not allow Government abuse these emergency measures. And as for daily life, Innes says that it won’t feel like anything more than a contactless payment and would only be restricted to certain environments.

But to Carlo’s mind, the passports’ seemingly innocent beginnings in certain environments would inevitably spill into other environments. In turn, this “health surveillance theatre ” would create a ratcheting effect across society.

So whose side are the great British public on? Innes quoted a study showing that only 20% of the population are opposed to health passes showing that there is broad acceptance of the idea. Carlo admitted that the past year has been a “rocky road” for liberties, but she maintained her faith in the rationalism of the public.

Innes conceded that, though she supports passports for children, she would propose implement them for babies. Meanwhile, Carlo says there is already an expectation for people in healthcare roles to take vaccines that does not need to be mandatory. Similarly people who are vulnerable to the virus and other diseases should be strongly expected.

Whether vaccine passports leave you with an uplifting vision of the post-pandemic world or a dystopian future, we hope you enjoyed the discussion and we thank Silkie and Kirsty for their time.