Coronavirus

Why vaccine passports are unworkable

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Over the coming months, Backbench will be partnering with Torrin Wilkins, Director of Centre Think Tank for a series of comment pieces. In his column, Torrin will explore prominent policy issues – some of them related to the latest news and others related to his longer-term projects. We’d love for Backbench readers and commentators to respond to Torrin’s policy analysis and ideas, so if you would like to contribute a response, please email editor@bbench.co.uk.  

Please note that all the views expressed in Torrin’s articles are those of Torrin himself and do not necessarily represent the standpoint of Backbench. 

Recently the debate around vaccine passports has focused on why they are either a necessary public health measure or an unnecessary authoritarian move. Unfortunately, neither of these arguments really matter when at a very basic level vaccine passports aren’t workable. Vaccine passports themselves work off a very simple principle, anyone who has been vaccinated should be able to access areas that require a vaccine passport. For those who haven’t been vaccinated they can’t access those areas.

The issues occur when groups that have been vaccinated aren’t able to access a vaccine passport. This is happening already as we have covered at Centre think tank where some students are unable to log their doses on NHS IT systems. These students, and anyone else who has done the right thing in getting a vaccine but can’t log their doses, are stuck without access to a vaccine passport.

The main reason for this is different parts of the UK using separate IT systems. These systems aren’t communicating with each other and its difficult to transfer details between them. It means a solution will either involve connecting the systems or manually transferring data between the systems, either of which will take time to achieve. In the meantime, thousands of people could be stuck unable to access vaccine passports which need both doses to be logged on the system.

This issue affects a maximum of 51,245 students and others who had to move around different areas between their two vaccine doses. Through no fault of their own, these people are stuck with no way to get a vaccine passport regardless of what they do. The basic arguments at the start that I mentioned are just that, basic arguments. They don’t account for those people who become stuck because of this policy.

In order to solve this, we need either create a single NHS IT system or to ensure the existing systems are compatible with each other. However, as was included in the paper, this is harder than simply creating or changing a computer system. The original attempt to create a single NHS IT system under the last Labour government was abandoned and still cost the government £10 billion. That’s why this isn’t just a short-term issue but a long term one that will likely prevent me from supporting vaccine passports.

However, in the future we could well face another pandemic sooner than we think and need a large-scale vaccination program. If this does happen again then we need to be able to log vaccines properly and to have the option of vaccine passports open to future governments.

This issue will likely no longer affect those living in England with vaccine passports being scrapped by the health secretary, Sajid Javid, a few days ago. This area is devolved as within Wales they may be “..introduced under some circumstances…”, for Scotland they are already being introduced whilst in Northern Ireland they are not being used for access to domestic venues.

Whilst most people within the UK probably won’t need to deal with vaccine passports there are still some areas that are introducing them. Wales and Scotland, where lots of students have to travel between their university and England or the other way around, need to consider these issues before using vaccine passports.

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