On the NHS vaccination cards and how their very existence is an affront to civil liberties as they offer businesses the opportunity to discriminate.
First published in January 2021.
After months of hiding away and dodging one another in an attempt to avoid contagion, the coronavirus vaccine will, undoubtedly, bring much peace of mind to many. Now we see the light at the end of the tunnel.
For good reason, we have traded our liberty for our collective wellbeing. I hoped that along with the vaccine, what liberty we used to enjoy would be restored but I worry that the introduction of the NHS vaccination card will see our liberties placed under strain.
Every vaccine recipient will be given a shiny, hardy card by the NHS which verifies his, or her, contagiousness. They will be given a tool that has the potential to become, what has already been dubbed as, an ‘immunity passport’. And, I fear that this card has the potential to be used to discriminate against the more liberally-minded who don’t want to be forced to carry a passport to public life.
The Government says, quite predictably, the NHS card is merely designed to help vaccinated people keep track of their appointments and provide the recipient with any relevant information on side-effects. But ministers have been making supportive noises of an immunity passport.
Health Minister, Nadhim Zahawi said the idea had particular merit for sectors like hospitality. He told the BBC, “We are looking at the technology ... I think you’ll probably find that restaurants and bars and cinemas and other venues, sports venues, will probably also use that system.” There doesn’t seem to be any concrete proposal as to what an immunity passport is, and the very idea is repudiated by many key figures within government, despite the vagueness of its form. However, its very discussion – out in the open, for all to hear – has a serious consequence.
It would be generous to say that government communication has been unclear throughout this pandemic. If support for the use of immunisation passports is aired publicly by government ministers this will encourage business owners to use the NHS card as just that – a passport to enter. No business owner, nor proprietor of any kind, wants a Covid death on their hands. They will have already had to go through the rigamarole of closing, to then furlough their employees and have extensive risk assessment. They will have re-jigged their entire operation to accommodate this new world order. Treating the NHS card as a method of discrimination offers stability of a kind businesses haven’t had for a year, and it is being handed straight to them albeit in the form of an appointment card, or is it an ‘immunisation passport’. Well, whichever it is.
If we discriminate at the door of, let’s say a bar, those that make it in will be safe from Covid-19 – we turn away all those without their NHS cards. Does this set a precedent?
ID scanner in China. | Image China
Should we disallow all those who potentially have other infectious diseases from participating in wider society, as if they were lepers? Do we now begin to turn our attention to those with virulent strains of the flu? Many have grandparents that might die by its hand. Should we expatriate people with HIV from our nightclubs, in case they rub up against another patron? If we descend this rabbit hole, I’m not sure a small restaurant would have enough patrons to keep afloat. If, as Nadhim Zahawi intimates, bars did begin to use the NHS card as an ‘immunisation passport’, should they go further and let fewer men in? The male gender is, after all, far more destructive than its female counterpart. Where does discrimination end in the name of protecting the public?
ID cards have been used in the fairly recent past in the United Kingdom. During WWII, a state of emergency, a national registration scheme saw every individual register his, or her, details, and carry a card. Many members of the public felt it somewhat an overstep. After the case of Willcock v Muckle the scheme was swiftly scrapped. Lord Goddard stated that it “[tended] to turn law-abiding subjects into lawbreakers” and it damaged any “good feeling” between the public and the auspices of the state. He said the scheme “[made] the people resentful of the acts of the police”. Despite the time being one mired in stories of collective sacrifice, this scheme and its affliction on individual liberty was not simply approached with a stiff enough upper lip, as something that had to be done for the greater good. It made the public uneasy and caused great disharmony.
If the NHS card is used by business owners and proprietors of private spaces to police who can participate in public life I fear ill-feeling will bubble up again. The cards very existence, and the government’s mixed-messaging on ‘immunisation passports’ – what they are, whether they should be used, how, etc. – seem likely to put the NHS card on a fast-track to becoming a bar to public participation for conscientious objectors.
This aside, do we want to live in a society where we siphon off people because a card says they may harm us. A driver may harm us; they are less likely to but they can. It is only when drivers do harm others that we examine their intention. We don’t identify drivers with a chequered history and have them drive at five miles per hour for life. They get a pass.
Without some clear and swift guidance from government, I expect many to be turned away at the doors of bars and restaurants on the basis that they may be a potential health risk. I don’t think anyone wants that.
Leon Zadok, writer.
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