Over the past decade or two, there has been a growth of licences to carry out the most everyday of activities. There are licences to busk or to hand out leaflets, licences for people to hold fitness classes or take photos in parks. Under the 2003 Licensing Act, a solitary guitar player in a pub required a ‘provision of entertainment licence’, and a venue’s possession of a piano required a ‘provision of entertainment facilities’ licence.
The logic of the licence is that you can act only with an official permission slip. You cannot just pitch up and busk but must first have put in an application, paid a fee, got your badge, booked your slot.
The vaccine passport is the nadir of ‘permission slip’ officialdom. It means that before you can go to the cinema, or a concert, or a football match, or perhaps even to work, you must first have obtained official clearance. Every person is declared a risk to others until they have proof that they have been tested or vaccinated.
The vaccine passport means that participating in civic life is not a right, something every citizen can do without having to prove anything to anybody. Instead, it can only be done with official clearance. There are conditions, there is a barrier of entry; papers must be shown at the entrance of the nightclub.
In the full roll-out of vaccine passports, as seen in Israel, those without a ‘green pass’ are thrown out of their gyms or choirs and cannot enter many public places. In China, those without the covid ‘green code’ on their smartphones cannot enter the supermarket or go on the subway.
It becomes a constant obligation of every citizen to obtain a covid green status and show they are covid secure. The person who is not regularly vaccinated or tested is marked out as a danger to others, and their permission to participate in civic life is revoked.
This means that citizenship becomes a provisional thing. There are certain conditions of entry today but tomorrow they may change, by a simple change in the app. In China, people have a green, amber or red status on their phone, which can be changed suddenly without warning.The vaccine passport has a strong resemblance to the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check for working with children. This check had become a de facto ‘safe adult’ licence, required even before parents could help out with their child’s swimming lessons or school trips. The unchecked adult was declared a danger to children, while the checked adult was declared safe.
Mass CRBs did not actually tell you if someone was a risk or not; indeed, with all the database errors and the trusting to paper rather than judgement, they could have been counterproductive. Rather, CRBs were founded on a political logic: they declared every adult to be a risk until they had obtained their permission slip. They made working with children a special high-security activity, and not an ordinary role that one assumed naturally as a citizen.
So it is with the vaccine passport. The free citizen is declared a ‘covid risk’, a danger to others; the person with a green ‘covid status’ is declared clean, of no risk to others.
The plan in the UK is that you could show your ‘covid secure status’ in one of three ways: through proof of vaccine, a past positive covid test (conferring immunity), or through a recent negative covid test. In a review of the scheme, Big Brother Watch concluded:
The risk of COVID-19 to our society is rapidly diminishing. With the most vulnerable groups vaccinated, the cost of COVID-status certificates to civil liberties, let alone economically, socially and politically, can hardly be explained let alone justified. Big Brother Watch finds is unfeasible that CSCs could be proven strictly necessary or proportionate…. The Government’s three proposed COVID statuses do not indicate reduced risks to the community, only reduced risks to the individual.
People may think that a vaccine passport is a small price to pay for certain practical freedoms, but this is a dangerous bargain. Agreeing to the vaccine passport means that you have sold your freedom. You may be able to go to the pub but this will be a privilege and not a right. The vaccine status check on the door is not a formality; it tells you that your right to go to the pub, to participate in civic life, has been taken away, and you can enter only with official approval. Today it is Covid, but tomorrow it might be another illness, or something else entirely.
Of course, it may be that covid checks operate at borders for some time to come, and that you have a covid passport to go alongside your real passport. But this is crossing a border, a time when we always revoke some of our rights to citizenship. The rights of a citizen or resident within their own country should be an entirely different matter.
A common argument against vaccine passports is that they create a ‘second class’ citizenry, who for medical or other reasons are unable to prove their ‘covid secure’ status. There would be two lines of people, two sets of rules, two different sets of rights. This is a real concern. It is also concerning that vaccine passports violate medical ethics, pressuring people to undergo a medical procedure in order to participate in civic life.
But the larger point is that vaccine passports will have changed the nature of citizenship and freedom for all citizens, including those with covid green status. It would be the final victory for ‘permission slip’ officialdom; it would revoke any presumed rights of citizens to participate in civic life. We would have sold our freedom for a measly price, and would find out the consequences of this deal in the months and years ahead.