Covid Passports: Fear of creeping authoritarianism

April 17, 2021

Over the week there has been a great deal of nervous debate about the rights and wrongs of Covid passports, which would provide certification of a recent negative test result, vaccination or the presence of antibodies. Unfortunately, there has been a bewildering over-simplification of what is a multi-faceted and complex debate.  Many of those arguing a particular case tend to use emotionally charged soundbites rather than a balanced and  thoughtful appraisal.

So far, 70 MPs  (40 Tories, 20 Labour and 10 LibDems) have stated outright opposition to Covid passports. Politicians who couldn’t normally agree on the day of the week are now basking in unabashed harmony on this issue. However, according to a YouGov poll this week, 58% of the public support the introduction of Covid passports. Evidence from a range of surveys suggests that people are more favourable of their use for optional activities rather than those that are integral to everyday life, and for people who work with the most vulnerable.

The irony is that both sides of the debate have frequently used very similar arguments to justify their perspectives. Whilst some have argued that the introduction of Covid passports will place obstacles in the path of endeavours to open up the economy, others believe precisely the opposite arguing that passports could help reopen sports, leisure, arts, and hospitality venues. 

Shami Chakrabarti argues that passports will permanently isolate people who won’t or can’t accept the vaccine thus creating a medical apartheid. Others believe that without passports, the reverse will happen with people anxious about becoming infected, even those who have had the vaccine, continuing to protect themselves by simply withdrawing into a permanent hermitage.  

Those in favour pose questions like, wouldn’t you prefer to go to a restaurant, cinema or pub where a Covid free environment is almost guaranteed? Wouldn’t you want proof that the care workers and NHS professionals taking care of your ageing and vulnerable parents have had the vaccine? If a Covid passport means that zero-Covid is brought within reach, and also limits the scope for dangerous mutations, wouldn’t you support it? Could Trade Unions come to the conclusion that the guarantee of a Covid-free workplace is a fundamental Health & Safety issue? The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has received over 134,000 complaints since the crisis started, but issued only 192 enforcement notices. If the ‘science’ tells us that Covid passports will help us reduce risk to an absolute minimum, should we not be following the science?  However, there are wider issues to consider!

Despite the apparent benefits, it is unsurprising that those against Covid passports are most worried about the creeping authoritarianism of a Tory government that is currently attempting to impose disproportionate controls on free expression and the right to protest with the introduction of their ‘Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’ which, to many, will force the police into acting as a politicised enforcement wing of government. Is it any wonder that this legislation, coupled with the potential introduction of ‘passports’, gives rise to suspicions of a Tory strategy to curtail freedoms, limit civil liberties, undermine fundamental human rights and increase ‘Big Brother’ surveillance?

There is a clearly justifiable fear that Covid passports could lay the foundation for an oppressive digital ID system which could normalise identity checks and put sensitive medical records in the hands of authorities and employers. To make matters worse, we have a Prime Minister who isn’t even trusted by his own side!

We are also right to be concerned about the motives of those hard right Tory fundamentalists whose dog-whistle rhetoric and polarising populism is imbued with duplicitous contradictions. For example, the hardline Tory MPs who belong to the lockdown-sceptic ‘Covid Recovery Group’(CRG) are against Covid passports but are fervently supportive of their Government’s dangerously oppressive legislative proposals. Though this may initially seem like a puzzling inconsistency, the CRG’s over-riding motivation is not about protecting civil liberties but more to do with fully opening the economy even if this means undermining the fight against Covid.

Of course, the issue of Covid passports would have been an irrelevance if the Government had been competent in their handling of the pandemic and hadn’t squandered a £37 million budget on crony contracts that continue to fail to deliver an effective test, trace and track system. The newly proposed twice a week lateral flow testing — which, incidentally, has shown to be up to 50% unreliable —  will achieve absolutely nothing without a fully functioning track, trace and isolate strategy. The Office for National Statistics report that 53% of people tested show a strong Covid infection, or high viral load, yet did not report any symptoms which underlines the risk of people unknowingly spreading the virus.

Despite the irresistible arguments against, it seems inevitable that there will be, at least, a ‘limited’ introduction of Covid passports. We must therefore focus our attention on how, when, where and how frequently they will be used. If introduced, they must be used strategically as defined by the science and operated securely within restricted and time-limited processes. Most crucially, they must come with all the safeguards necessary to protect our civil liberties, privacy and freedoms whilst avoiding negative discrimination and an increase in inequalities.

Dave Knaggs (Chair of Penrith & the Border CLP, written in  personal capacity) First Published in The Cumberland & Westmoreland Herald