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Devil’s Advocate: Do We Really Need COVID Passports?

Alex Beckett - YES (66%)

What an intriguing topic. And I’m writing for a side which months ago I was fervently against. Lockdown frustration (which I still harbour) had plagued me, and I was strongly against such an intrusive scheme as “vaccine passports.” Well, life is nothing but change. And I have, simply, changed. Most crucially, where I live has changed. I am in France presently, writing from self-imposed exile. Honestly, I’m missing home a little bit, because for some reason, mocking the French doesn’t seem to go down so well over here.

Although one thing for which the French, perhaps more so Monsieur Macron, must be given credit, is the decision to introduce vaccine passports. Their effect was phenomenal: greater vaccine uptake, fewer restrictions, less anxiety. As a foreigner, I too, when arriving in a restaurant, or a hotel, or even an open-air marketplace, must produce my equivalent of their vaccine passport. To remain conversational, I’ll often slip in (in French, coincidentally) “My pass sanitaire is Northern Irish, I hope that’s OK.”

Two effects come from this. Firstly, I make it subtly known that I am not French. Win number one. But additionally, the response each time is akin to something like, “Oh, it doesn’t matter, it’s just a formality.” And so it is! I realise upon such replies that, with but a swipe of a QR code, I am amongst the merry many moving back to what feels like a normal life.

I also realise that — unlike the libertarian types would have you think — whilst I do so, no one is jumping from questioning my COVID vaccination status to asking about my full medical record and what I ate for breakfast that day. It is not at all an intrusive process. For those who argue that it is excessively intrusive, let’s discuss the big picture.

Is “I’m not telling you” really a sufficient answer when asked about one’s vaccination status? Would it be acceptable if, before a blood transfusion, the hospital refused to disclose to the recipient if the blood is infected or if it shall be rejected by the recipient’s body? Or if a sexual partner were to exclaim ignorance with regards to the sexually transmitted diseases they may, or may not, harbour? We exchange biological information all the time, when it comes to important matters. People dying from COVID-19, which is now a much more avoidable occurrence than prior to December 2020, is an important matter.

Nor are COVID passports a measure purely for the old, which, to a greater extent, lockdowns were. We all have vested interests in a COVID passport system: We have plans we want to follow, timelines we wish to meet, lives we wish to live. I felt a substantial amount of unease in visiting the pub or restaurant before I left for my flight to France. What if one of my fellow diners or drinkers was to test positive the next day? What would I do if I were given a ring to inform me that I had inadvertently been in the danger zone? The ramifications could at worst be highly disruptive — cancelled flights and hotel bookings, hundreds of pounds lost — or at best irritatingly inconvenient. Detractors may say that if I truly cared, I wouldn’t go to the pub before a significant flight. I would say that such a suggestion is unrealistic and that my detractors ought to try the wonder that is a properly poured Guinness in the company of one’s friends.

The COVID passport is a means by which we can all relubricate the wheels of our social, physical, in-person lives that for a year and half now have been somewhat in stasis. But critically, it’s the sole means by which we may do so with less angst. Less angst that it shall be us who proliferates a transmissible virus to vulnerable people. Less angst that we may provide the link in a drawn-out chain leading from mild discomfort to serious upset. And less angst that we may enable a real-life recreation of Tom Lehrer’s masterpiece “I Got It From Agnes,” which I advise all readers to listen to.

Amelia Perry - NO (34%)

Now, don’t get me wrong: I want the pandemic to be over as much as the next girl (mainly so that I never have to read an email that starts “I hope you’re doing well in these unprecedented times” ever again). And I understand that the best solution we have out of this is to get as much of the population vaccinated as possible. What isn’t a solution, however, is the creation of a COVID passport scheme.

The choice to be vaccinated is (and always has been) a deeply personal one. Whether for religious reasons, personal beliefs or, sadly, due to way too much misinformation in circulation, there are many reasons for people to make the choice to remain unvaccinated, though I will give you that some are more valid than others. Regardless of the reasoning, as with any medical decision, deciding whether to get vaccinated is a matter of informed consent. That choice shouldn’t have to be any more complicated than a “yes” or “no,” but the introduction of vaccine passports makes the decision a lot more complex. Incentivising people to get the jab by promising them entry to big events, clubs and other venues isn’t gentle persuasion, it’s outright coercion.

We’re told to get the jab to stop ourselves from getting seriously ill, not to ensure you’ll never get COVID — it just minimises the risk. So why should people who have decided to take that risk and remain unvaccinated be unable to go to big events? If they’re deemed responsible enough to make the decision not to be vaccinated, they are surely responsible enough to decide whether or not they want to go to a large event and potentially catch coronavirus. Though 12- to 15-year-olds will now be offered the vaccine, the vast majority of people who are vaccinated are legally adults and are therefore perfectly entitled to make their own decisions — once it’s been made, that should be it. But the introduction of vaccine passports makes the population’s medical decisions a matter for governmental debate.

I would be more understanding if the idea was to ensure that everyone attending was not infectious at the time, but this isn’t what COVID passports are for. The Scottish government’s own website states that a negative test won’t be considered as a condition for entry because this will “undermine one of the policy aims of the scheme which is to increase vaccine uptake.” There is absolutely no medical reason for having a QR code on your phone letting people know you’ve been vaccinated. You can’t help but feel that yet again, this is a measure being taken with young people in mind — and not in a good way. Early on in the pandemic, we were quickly vilified as selfish partygoers who didn’t care about killing grannies, which, I’m sure we can all agree that though it might apply to a tiny minority, is a little harsh for the rest of us. And yet the venues that are part of the scheme are the venues that lots of young people want to go to — nightclubs, concerts, etc. The St Andrews community is a great example of how this portrayal of young people being selfish and unaware isn’t true; at the beginning of term, 97% of students had at least got their first jab before they even arrived.

And finally, I think we can all agree that over the last 18 months, everybody has felt isolated and lonely on a fair few occasions. Given we are getting to a point where we can begin to enjoy some small sense of normality, albeit with some precautionary measures still in place, it’s unfair to create what is essentially a two-tier society and risk some people continuing to feel alone and excluded because of a choice they have made after careful thought.

So there is no "need” for vaccine passports. Being vaccinated is not a guarantee against infection, and only allowing those who have been vaccinated to attend events is exclusion — if a consenting adult has made the decision not to get jabbed, they are willing to take the risk of going to an event. Until you can prove to me that it’s a measure purely to protect us rather than increase vaccine uptake, something so personal should remain our business, not the government’s.

Photo: Alamy

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