Why Vaccine Certificates Trouble Both Biden and Boris Johnson

Opposition to Boris Johnson’s go-slow plan for reopening the economy and his too-vague plan for domestic vaccine passports has been growing in his Conservative Party. There are many arguments raised, but what really bothers some conservatives (small and big C) is the suspicion that his policies reflect a sizable shift in the role of the state in people’s lives.

Some are looking to the U.S., which is expecting the fastest growth since 1984 as states shed restrictions. Britain too has spent mightily to prop up the economy. Its vaccination program (with 59% of adults having received a first dose) is even more successful. They want Johnson to channel the American can-do mindset. After four months of the latest lockdown, they want to see more of the calculated risk-taking evidenced by the Vaccine Task Force, which designed Britain’s successful vaccine program. 

Instead, they see a prime minister largely guided by the “precautionary principle,” the European template for decision-making amid uncertainty. They don’t like it and they want the old brash Boris back — the one who wrote in 2004, in a column railing against the idea of ID cards, that he would literally eat his if asked to present it because “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”

The resistance shouldn’t be underestimated. At least 40 Conservative lawmakers have joined with MPs from other parties to oppose Johnson’s plans for vaccine status certificates. The Labour Party has also decided to vote against it. At his press conference this week, Johnson dodged the hard questions about his plans. That won’t do. If he’s to sell his party, and the country, on his approach then he’ll need to show that it’s both proportionate and temporary. 

Steve Baker, a leading backbench lawmaker and fierce opponent of lockdowns, said Tuesday that a vaccine certification scheme would create a “miserable dystopia of Checkpoint Britain.” Inequality, friction in doing business and mission creep are just some of the many questions — legal, ethical, practical — raised by vaccine certificates. 

Israel’s “green pass” system is an example of one that works smoothly, though that’s partly because of the country’s digitized health-care system and a long-standing comfort with ID cards. The Biden Administration was also trying to work out a way to create electronic vaccine certifications, but it has had to back down under intense opposition from Republicans who also worry about anything that smacks of coercion or a limit on individual liberties. 

Some of the criticism in Britain’s case is knocking at straw men. Johnson has made clear that he doesn’t intend certificates to be used on public transport or for essential shops and public services. Nor would they be the only way to gain access to sports events or concerts. Testing or proof of natural immunity from a previous infection would also count. He has suggested what he sees as the real benefits: the potential to lift remaining social distancing rules so people can feel more comfortable returning to more crowded places.

The government has belatedly tried to calm fears of mission creep by promising parliamentary scrutiny. That’s essential. There were reports Wednesday that Johnson plans to use the certificates only for large-scale events, which would likely meet with less opposition and come as a relief to pub-owners.

Still, the introduction of vaccine certificates does represent a curtailment in the freedom of movement compared to the pre-pandemic age. The question is whether certification would be secure, easy and time-limited. 

The main argument in favor is that the vaccination program doesn’t eliminate the risk of a resurgence. Vaccine uptake has been very strong, but it could fall by as much as 20% among younger age groups, government advisors say. Modelling used by the government predicts an increase in hospitalizations and deaths, with the worst case scenario a return to levels seen in January. Even under more benign scenarios, there will need to be precautions (that word again) in place for some time to come, suggesting we are in for a long transition back to normalcy. 

The U.S. experience may actually provide Johnson with some backup on this point: The country is also in a race to keep vaccinating ahead of the virus’s spread and the number of new cases increased in 23 states over the past week. The speed with which restrictions have been dropped prompted Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to warn recently of an “impending doom.”

And it seems Americans may actually yearn for some protections. Two researchers at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business found that participants in a small study preferred stricter policies (including hospitals with a staff vaccination policy or airlines that require masks) and tended to underestimate support among others for the same restrictions. 

Brits appear open to new initiatives aimed at keeping them safe. Lockdowns have had popular support. And in a recent Ipsos Mori poll, 78% of those surveyed said they supported vaccine passports for international travel and nursing home visits, 68% supported them for attending the theater and six in 10 Britons thought the potential benefits to the economy from introducing the certifications outweigh any ethical concerns.

These surveys suggest that even in the most individualist countries, the pandemic may have made us more willing to give the state leeway in keeping us protected for now. Once vaccinated, the virus may pose no greater threat than the flu, but until there’s certainty, people will want to know that the state has their back. Despite the noisy opposition from his party, Johnson’s instincts aren’t so much illiberal as in tune with that sentiment. He’ll have to do a much better job at convincing his own party of that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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