The hospitality sector, from restaurants to casinos and hotels, has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdowns. But as the vaccines rollout and populations are protected, the question arises of how to return to normalcy, and whether so-called vaccine passports (to prove one’s vaccinated status) will make the economic transition smoother, or represent an unnecessary risk to civil liberties.
The United States and the United Kingdom are leading the vaccination charge in the West, with only a handful of other nations (such as Israel) ahead on the numbers. And yet these two countries are, at the time of writing, taking very different approaches to vaccine passports.
Following pressure at the state level, perhaps most notably in Florida, the White House has ruled out mandatory COVID-19 vaccination passports. Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated there would be neither a federal database nor a compulsory vaccination credential. However, New York has launched the Excelsior Pass, meant to function as a vaccine passport in all but name (it remains to be seen how widely recognized/useful this unilateral certification will be). Hawaii is another state that plans to enact some system of vaccine passports, but not until May 1.
Other states that have publicly confirmed they won’t be using any form of vaccine passports include Texas, Montana, Idaho, and Florida, with Utah banning the state government from requiring vaccine passports, and California planning to draft legislation to stop the use of them.
In the UK, however, vaccine passports are under active consideration by the government. And with polling showing strong to middling support, (78 percent of Britons asked by Ipsos Mori supported the measure for international travel, 62 percent to visit pubs or restaurants, and 56 percent for getting a haircut) this might well be enacted.
Canada, meanwhile, has been keen to participate in discussion about certification for international travel but Prime Minister Trudeau has acknowledged that vaccine passports for the purpose of accessing domestic services do raise questions about fairness.
The EU also has plans for vaccine passports to encourage travel, though it remains to be seen whether these will evolve into use for accessing goods and services.
Why the differing views, and what are the pros and cons?
The UK generally is more tolerant of surveillance, (American visitors to London might be staggered by just how many CCTV cameras there are), and attitudes to fighting coronavirus have shown more support for vaccination in the country than almost anywhere else in the world (the UK is joint top with Brazil at 86 percent support in polling by Ipsos Mori). By extension, a measure seen as enabling a return to normality (even if illiberal) has relatively strong support.
There’s an intense amount of fear regarding the pandemic, which is entirely understandable. Guaranteed vaccination would allow relaxation of social distancing without people worrying about contracting or passing on (even if not suffering oneself) the disease.
However, such a passport, likely through a smartphone app or similar (around one-fifth of people do not own smartphones), would also enable government tracking. And a lot of people are wary of this sort of thing, raising the social credit system and severe electronic control that China had been imposing on its people even before the COVID-19 healthcare crisis arose.
Some businesses may also fear that if vaccine passports come in they’ll be forced to choose between maintaining social distancing protocols (necessarily reducing the potential number of customers) and asking people for their papers, in effect, which may put off an equal number of people. However, other businesses are very much for the measure, as restaurants and the like would be able to operate at full capacity with no (or reduced) social distancing provided customers are content to go along with the passport.
Until everybody is vaccinated the use of such a passport would constitute discrimination, necessarily, against those who have not had a jab (or two). Given that the young have been less at risk from the disease but would be subjected to a longer lockdown or second-class status, this could greatly exacerbate intergenerational tensions. It also raises the slightly ridiculous prospect of younger workers at a café being able to go in and do a shift, but not be a paying customer.
There’s also a natural tendency to fear that a temporary measure can become a permanent one. Income tax was introduced in the United Kingdom by William Pitt the Younger as a temporary measure to ensure sufficient funds were available to maintain war with France. British readers will have noticed that while the Napoleonic Wars ended some time ago, income tax is still around.
It’s possible a middle way of vaccine passports for international travel (and possibly internal movement) might be the way forward, without them being necessary to access shops and services.
And one might ask the question: wasn’t the point of vaccination so that things could return to normal?
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