Clubbers take to the dance floor just minutes after Pryzm nightclub threw open its doors to celebrate the relaxing of Covid-19 rules in the early hours of July 19, 2021 in Brighton, England. (Photo by Chris Eades/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Freedom is fruitless

Young people have suffered enough — don’t force them to have vaccine passports to do the things they enjoy

Imagine this scenario: you are 18 years old and roll out of bed on 19 July with a hangover, mid-afternoon, to eventually face your “breakfast” and coffee. The headache is worth it, though — you have just had one of the best nights of your life after going clubbing for the first time ever. Finally, a taste of freedom: a crowd, dancing, music. Maybe some flirting. Maybe more. But the mood music changes as you tune in to the latest press announcement from the Prime Minister.

For the last 16 months the young have made huge sacrifices. They gave up education, exams, work, dating, seeing family members, sport, rites of passage like graduation and prom night, and the first bids for freedom and adult fun like nightclubs. It seems there is a further sacrifice: they must be vaccinated, like it or not, if they want to continue clubbing.

In a reverse Cinderella story, young people queued to enter nightclubs at midnight on “Freedom Day”. Some commentators judged the footage of joy at one minute past the hour with moral disdain; some cheered them on. In the end, freedom lasted just 17 hours. This was no return of freedom, but an exchange: a time-limited dud pumpkin.

This government has behaved like an abusive parent or partner

Boris Johnson told the nation that, from September, vaccine passports will be mandatory to access nightclubs and “other large venues”. Using a rather threatening tone, he said that “some of life’s most important pleasures and opportunities are likely to be increasingly dependent on vaccination”, and that the government does “reserve the right to mandate certification at any point”. Be good, boys and girls, and do what you are told.

Poor youngsters. This government has behaved like an abusive parent or partner — “no” never means no. Enticements, scary stories, blame and the threat of coercion are designed to ensure they submit.

Over 96 per cent of adults have had at least one dose of the vaccine; yet 35 per cent of 18-35 year olds remain unvaccinated. Some young people may simply not have gotten round to the jab yet. Some might be awaiting their appointment. Some might not want to be vaccinated, have concerns about safety, or cultural or religious objections.

Was it bitter irony, chaotic confusion or the darkest psyop yet that the Government chose “Freedom Day” for this announcement? I didn’t think I could be more cynical about the government’s leveraging of behavioural science strategies after researching my book, A State of Fear, but there you go.

The announcement also goes against the advice of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) report into Covid-19 status certification, which found that the government could not make a strong scientific case for vaccine passports, and that they are discriminatory. In the absence of a strong medical and public health case for vaccine passports, we are left with the behavioural science case. 

Michael Gove denied at the time that the passport was intended to drive vaccine uptake. He claimed the Government did not want the vaccine passports to be discriminatory, so proposals allowed for negative tests or natural immunity. The removal of those options makes the intention very clear: this is about driving vaccine uptake. 

I spoke to Sir Jonathan Montgomery, a Professor of Healthcare Law. As we discussed the potential impact of this move on “informed consent” he observed that: “We’re having a debate about the ethics of behavioural science rather than a debate about the safety and benefits of the vaccine. It’s hard to evaluate a vaccine passport without saying exactly how it will be used, which the government has not revealed. This looks like double bluff behavioural science.”

France’s plans for vaccine passports prompted protests and the burning of vaccination centres

Montgomery believes informed consent will be preserved even as vaccine passports are introduced, since people can still choose whether to go to nightclubs or not, but there are huge grey areas. Which other venues might this extend to? How can we judge the fine line between incentive and coercion without the details of the plans? Where is the scientific evidence for the necessity of passports? This government has been remiss on producing evidence when asked throughout the epidemic. Montgomery was particularly concerned that there has been no impact assessment for the ethnic and religious groups that are most “vaccine hesitant” and will therefore be most affected by vaccine passports.

Others are concerned about the undermining of informed consent. Dr Jackie Cassell, public health specialist and medic at Brighton and Sussex Medical School told me: “Incentives and coercions could easily generate a pushback against vaccines and affect long-term trust. We’re playing with fire.” She might be right in a literal sense. France’s plans for vaccine passports prompted protests and the burning of vaccination centres.

The Council of Europe resolution on Covid-19 vaccines details ethical, legal and practical considerations when ensuring a high vaccine uptake and urges Member States to: “Ensure that citizens are informed that the vaccination is not mandatory and that no one is under political, social or other pressure to be vaccinated if they do not wish to do so; ensure that no one is discriminated against for not having been vaccinated, due to possible health risks or not wanting to be vaccinated.”

There is the legal issue of informed consent but there are also issues of fairness and whether this is a sensible course of action. This is far from simple, as over 9,000 written submissions to the PACAC enquiry — and many thousands more to the government — demonstrate.

Will the vaccine passport survive a vote in Parliament? It doesn’t matter if enough teenagers dutifully book their vaccination in a hungover and depressive daze. Cinderella will probably find a way to the ball. Whether it’s via an obedient shot in the arm and mandatory ID, or black market papers, or an illegal rave. The young deserve some fun, and I expect they will make it, one way or another. They also deserve a government that is honest and transparent. They might need a fairy godmother for that.

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