My wife will tell you that it is rarely indeed that I admit to anything other than absolute certainty on any issue of current affairs. (Is that a failing, or in a Leader an asset? Discuss.) But the legitimate limitation of civil liberties in a Pandemic is causing me a degree of angst. I pride myself on being a libertarian - the state should be as small as possible, our freedoms as unfettered as possible, our rights as unassailable as possible. But what is “as possible”? I hate official bossiness; rules are there to be tested to the limit, if not actually broken.
Yet unless - in Malmesbury philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s words – life is to be ‘nasty brutish and short’, then we all accept the necessary constraints of society. Law is obvious. “Thou shalt not kill.” What about conventions? There used to be a sign on Glasgow buses “No Spitting.” When did you last see anyone on public transport spitting? (Maybe that’s why every overcrowded Glasgow bus had the ‘p’ scratched off). There used to be a sign in every train loo: “Gentlemen lift the Seat”. Was that an instruction or a definition? “Do as you would be done by” is (unenforceable) prerequisite of a decent and civilised society.
So what about Covid passports, then? They will be as essential for overseas travel as they have always been. Indonesia will continue to require proof of vaccination against polio; the Philippines, for meningitis; Brazil, for yellow fever. That is their right, and if you don’t get the necessary vaccine and carry a certificate in your passport then you won’t be let in. At the other end of the spectrum is the US, vehemently against any sort of vaccination credential system.
Domestically it may be different. If I go to a football match or a cinema or even a church service; if I travel on the underground or pack into a supermarket without social distancing; then I want to be relatively certain that I will not get Covid as a result. That of course means a degree of discrimination in favour of those who have had the vaccination or can otherwise prove that they are no kind of risk. OAPs would be welcome at rock concerts, but teenagers would not. A bit rum and certainly ‘ageist.’
What about workplaces? What about those who cannot be vaccinated - pregnant women, for example. And if, for very good reason the State does not provide some kind of guidelines, or a piece of paper, what is there to stop an employer, or a publican, or a theatre manager keen to secure sufficient bottoms on seats to make the production commercially viable inventing their own? Are we really going to force theatres into bankruptcy to accommodate those who can’t or won’t, or haven’t had their vaccination? Do our freedom loving instincts really trump the pub owner’s viability?
On the other hand, any state-run scheme would be plagued by privacy, security and political problems – not to mention legal ones, with ECHR Article Eight privacy rights, GDPR and the Data Protection Act all in play. Vaccine passports might even be ‘racist’ if more black people than white were excluded from events. Not only that, but how useful would vaccine passports be anyhow if a vaccinated person can still carry the disease? Maybe mass lateral flow testing may be the solution, even if that too has myriad problems associated with it.
We don’t want our return to normality to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’; but how many of our rights and freedoms are we ready to sacrifice in order to prevent it? I will have to make up my mind before any such passport scheme meets a vote in the House of Commons. (The SNP threatening to vote on this purely English matter may well push me toward a libertarian rebellion on it. Whips to note.)
At all events, I hope you my constituents can see why I am so torn on the issue.