Artillery Row

The vaccine passport fallacy

Why don’t we just charge the unvaccinated more?

Over the weekend, Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced the government would not go ahead with plans to require proof of full vaccination to be able to enter nightclubs and other crowded venues in England, following fierce opposition.

Javid however added that the government “should keep it in reserve as a potential option” in case the Covid situation deteriorated. 

Scotland, however, will be requiring people to show proof of full vaccination to get into nightclubs and other large events and Wales is considering adopting them. Across Europe, “sanitary passes” are already in force, most notably in France where the requirement to demonstrate proof of vaccination, recovery from Covid or a negative test has reportedly boosted the vaccination rate — which cynically seemed to be the whole point.

In Italy, a “green pass” system, already introduced in July, seems to have boosted internal tourism. Whereas France and Italy are witnessing protests against the measure, similar restrictions imposed by several German states did not provoke much opposition. Perhaps that’s because the rules are not being enforced, according to 40 per cent of respondents to a survey by opinion pollster Civey. 

The Netherlands and the Belgian region of Brussels have also just announced an intention to introduce Covid passes, which are also in effect in New York and several Canadian provinces. Denmark on the other hand, has just abolished all Covid restrictions, as the first Western country to do so. The Danish government no longer considers COVID-19 “a socially critical disease” and the Danish digital Covid pass, introduced in May 2021, is no longer required to be able to enter night clubs. Sweden will scrap all Covid restrictions from September 29.

In any private insurance-based medical system, it’s normal to pay higher fees when deliberately taking more risk

All kinds of arguments are being made to justify “Covid passes” but when taking a closer look, they do not stand up to scrutiny.

An overview.

“Protecting the vulnerable”
If the vaccine works, as it protects against hospitalisation due to Covid for more than 90 per cent, those that are vaccinated shouldn’t have to care all that much, right? 

Indeed, but supporters of Covid passes maintain that certain vulnerable people cannot be vaccinated, for example when they’re undergoing medical treatment. And, the argument goes, for vulnerable people that have been vaccinated, the protection against hospitalisation may be less than 90 per cent.  

But what’s often omitted is the fact that those that are vaccinated can still pass on Covid, even if they are less contagious than those vaccinated. Martin Blachier, a French public health consultant is on the money when warning in Politico that “the pass creates a false sense of security because it throws together people who are vaccinated, and therefore can transmit the disease, and people who have been tested negative.”

In sum, to protect the vulnerable, Covid passes aren’t the best instrument. Requiring medical staff and people who come into frequent contact with those with the weakest immune systems to take rapid Covid tests may well be a much more targeted method. 

“Weeding out Covid”
Another argument to impose restrictions of all kinds on the unvaccinated is that, as US President Joe Biden has put it, “We have the tools to combat COVID-19, and a distinct minority of Americans, supported by a distinct minority of elected officials, are keeping us from turning the corner”. Biden even wants to impose vaccines for most federal workers and contractors — something which may well be a violation of the American Constitution

Apart from a genuine, well-intended concern to convince people to get the vaccine to protect themselves, this kind of thinking is underpinned by the idea that as long as Covid rages, we risk that all kinds of new variants pop up, and perhaps one day we’ll see a variant which the vaccine cannot beat.

Ultimately, this implies that the goal is that of “zero Covid” — to weed it out completely. Meanwhile, a consensus has formed that the idea of Covid disappearing anytime soon is for the birds. More and more governments around the globe have now adopted this consensus, from Australia, a hotbed of intrusive Covid measures, to Hong Kong, which has followed a much more liberal approach.

“Prevent hospitals from being overburdened”
If hospitals are flooded by those that are not vaccinated, regular care is postponed. In Belgium, it was just decided to order hospitals to keep more hospital beds available for Covid patients, which in effect causes long awaited non-Covid medical treatment to be postponed. Most intensive care patients are non-vaccinated, which has led medical professionals to call for Covid passes.

Once a measure has been introduced, policy makers are loathe to scrap them

An alternative approach is possible, however, even if it may be too late to deal with current pressures. That is to charge those that are not vaccinated more in case they end up in hospital with Covid. Or perhaps a more preventive approach could be to charge higher medical insurance fees for those prepared to take the risk by not vaccinating themselves. It is not fair to burden others with a risk one decides to take. One could envision a mandatory contribution for those that aren’t vaccinated, with the receipts going to a fund that can only be used to expand hospital capacity for non-vaccinated Covid patients. If more hospital capacity than expected is needed, the non-vaccinated receive an extra bill. If less is needed, they get some of their money back. 

In any private insurance-based medical system, it’s normal to pay higher fees when deliberately taking more risk with one’s health. Of course, given the big role of the State in medical care, one should be careful with introducing these kinds of measures. There must be proper scientific proof that the promoted medical treatment — in this case Covid vaccines — actually works. In this case, it does, and any extra fee must be used to guarantee sufficient care capacity for those opting not to be vaccinated.

It is true that there are considerable bureaucratic risks involved, and sound libertarians would rightly argue that citizens always need to retain the right to opt out and go for fully private care — but at least such an approach is way more targeted than vaccine passes and actually guarantees that there will be sufficient health care capacity.

The risks with Covid passes
One does not need to be a conspiracy nutter to realise the risks with Covid passes.

First, there’s the issue of medical privacy: do citizens have any business with each other’s health status?

Second, in today’s world, one can no longer ignore hacking of sensitive databases as a minor risk.

Third, they may well be tricky to abolish. Just look at how governments around the world continue to impose mask-wearing obligations despite the fact that there is more and more scientific evidence that cloth or surgical mouth masks barely have any effect  against Covid and let’s not even get started about regulations inspired by the supposed need for obsessive cleaning. In the light of the evidence that COVID-19 rarely spreads through surfaces, these kinds of regulations seem mostly inspired by an urge to install a climate of fear.

Once a measure has been introduced, policy makers are loathe to scrap them, perhaps fearing to be blamed for any Covid flare-up afterwards and perhaps out of the human desire to retain control.

Fourth, what if the medical procedure which the government aims to promote through severely restricting the social life of those refusing to isn’t as rock-solid scientifically proven as the Covid vaccines? During the Covid crisis, it became clear to everyone science isn’t always as clear cut, to put it mildly, and is fundamentally surrounded with doubts. Covid passports may well be a truly dangerous precedent.

And fifth, assuming Covid passes may convince people to get vaccinated, a key question really is whether imposing severe restrictions on the social life of a minority is really proportionate in comparison to the benefits of them being vaccinated. Why not a Chinese-style dystopian social credit system or installing mandatory GPS chips in order to fight petty crime or achieve other positive social outcomes?

There is abundant proof that Covid vaccines work and that any health risks are almost exclusively short term. As a result, one could well make a pretty solid case against vaccine hesitancy, but in any free society these kinds of intimate decisions should only be made by individuals themselves. It frankly defies belief how willing many are to bully a minority of people into undergoing a certain medical procedure, where the only solid argument is that medical capacity for those vaccinated may be overwhelmed. As I have mentioned, that concern could be relatively easily dealt with by requesting an extra fee to the non-vaccinated to secure sufficient medical capacity.

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