Vaccine passports and mandatory vaccines are not solutions – they show the Government has failed to protect everyone

Posted on 19 Aug 2021

The pandemic has shown us all how much we depend on one another. We all want, and hope, that some form of normality is round the corner, that we can make plans and see our families without worrying about lockdowns, alerts or infections. And it is vital that the most clinically vulnerable are given the support they need as restrictions ease. But in this rush, and with the relentlessly confused communications on what we now do to keep ourselves safe in this next stage of the pandemic, the Government has continually raised the possibility of vaccine passports and mandatory vaccinations as an innocuous route to freedoms – while blocking the scrutiny and debate they need.

While vaccine passports seem like a solution, they’re actually a by-product of the failings of this Government’s entire pandemic response. They look like a panacea, and they’re being presented as such. But they are a serious reinvention of our relationship to the state and potentially to our employers and as such they need serious debate. At the same time, vital support that would enable everyone to be protected – whether that’s an eviction ban or the extension of the uplift to Universal Credit – has been cut.

Many of us have been eager to get vaccinated, to protect ourselves, our families and communities, to take part in a programme that may be taking us a step towards post-pandemic life. But taking a coercive approach, would likely entrench the structural barriers to accessing the vaccine with the impact being felt most keenly by some of the very communities who have borne the brunt of the pandemic.

There are many reasons people may be wary when told they must prove they have participated in Government programmes to live their lives. Vaccine passports ignore the concerns of some of the most marginalised and threatens to lock them out of public life. Communications have been chaotic throughout the pandemic with mixed messaging about what people should be doing to keep safe. A key way of maximising take up of the vaccines would be better education to support and empower people. Giving everyone a full understanding of the risks and benefits to themselves and others is what informed consent truly means. Transparency and trust also go hand in hand. Unfortunately, another hallmark of this Government’s conduct is its habitual avoidance of accountability. By constantly backtracking on the prospect of vaccine passports, and now introducing them in certain settings or otherwise leaving it up to venues and employers when deciding whether to implement them, it is laying the groundwork for them to become a normalised part of everyday life without meaningful debate. The Cabinet Office’s review of vaccine passports lasted 16 pages – only six of which contained anything approaching meaningful or relevant content.

From the start of this pandemic the Government had two options for how it dealt with it: a) responding to it as a public health crisis with support and clear communication or b), the option it has chosen, framing it as a crowd-control crisis where only coercion and a criminal justice response will work. Seen in this context it becomes clear that vaccine passports are the result of a wider failure to provide adequate support and to communicate effectively.

And it is the most marginalised who bear the brunt. When England unlocked the Government failed to provide support and guidance to the clinically vulnerable, so that as cases rose, “Freedom Day” became the opposite for many who have already been through the hardest and most restrictive lockdowns. It has already rolled back many of the schemes that it put in place to protect people – and intends to continue cutting vital avenues of support, right when people need it most.

What’s even more appalling is that not only do those most in need suffer the worst of this ineffective response, they are also pitted against each other. This is most apparent with vaccine passports and vaccine mandates.

Vaccine mandates for social care staff have caused unnecessary fear and hostility, with staff who raised concerns – many of whom risked their health and well-being on the frontline throughout this pandemic – unfairly positioned as obstinate anti-vaxxers. Many social care staff live in neighbourhoods and communities often on the sharp end of oppressive state practices. Major bodies including the British Medical Association and GMB Union have raised concerns about the rights of employees if such a step is taken, not to mention the practical impact of suddenly imposing new punitive restrictions on workplaces for staffing in critical sectors.

If you face routine police discrimination, if you or members of your community have suffered from the hostile environment’s web of surveillance that spreads through health care and other services, if you have been subjected to continuous failures in the welfare system, it might cause concern when asked to participate in Government programmes that affect your health choices, bodily autonomy and personal privacy.

People in precarious work, such as the service industry, will not have the same choice when it comes to vaccine passports as those who can work from home. The Government initially said vaccine passports would “only” apply to nightclubs, and then would be trialled at football stadiums. Ministers claimed to hand back responsibility to us, the public, if we choose to attend those events. But the people whose livelihoods rely on working at those events have no such choice.

The ill-effects of this Government’s prioritisation of coercion and punishment rather than care and support when responding to this pandemic can be seen when we look at the detail of the Coronavirus Act. It introduced sweeping police powers and lowered care safeguards in one of the most dangerous pieces of legislation in a generation. While the Act remains law, the Government that rushed to pass it has still refused to provide adequate sick pay so that people in precarious work can afford to isolate, or to implement any of the policies called for by charities and experts that would ensure everyone is protected.

Introducing vaccine passports is not a solution – it is a failure to learn from these mistakes. Coercion will undermine relationships, seeding distrust and division. Letting employers set rules and restrictions around vaccination status will lead to discrimination.

The way Ministers rushed through mandatory vaccinations for care home workers was an even more stark example of their refusal to allow scrutiny. There was no impact assessment or meaningful parliamentary debate, but a law mandating vaccination for a group of workers, many on low incomes who have been at the forefront of fighting the pandemic, was ushered onto the statute books through secondary legislation. There was no explanation as to why such emergency protocols were necessary nearly 18 months after the pandemic became headline news.

The more our rights are eroded and these conditions become the norm, we move further and further away from a free and fair society – yet the Government is making sweeping changes under the cover of the pandemic, without proper announcements or public debate.

If vaccine passports become normalised as a requirement to access work or services, it is those already marginalised, those who have historically been failed or whose rights have been violated by the state, and those who rely on work that is precarious, whose rights and autonomy will be most affected.

We all want to keep each other safe, to do all we can to protect our communities, but we do not all face the same choices, and this Government has failed to protect everyone equally. The Government must continue to ensure wide access to vaccinations as well as education to support informed consent.

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