Alison O'Connor: Vaccine passports expose line between individual and greater good

The Taoiseach and Tánaiste have both already spoken about a 'green digital certificate' to attend events once a person is vaccinated. But the paths taken globally aren't clear 
Alison O'Connor: Vaccine passports expose line between individual and greater good

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar spoke about how 'digital green certificates', along with rapid antigen testing, 'could open the way to resuming hospitality, the arts, and live events safely' although this will probably be a few months away. Picture: Joel Saget/Getty Images

The president of Brown University in the US wrote a letter to her college community this week saying there was every reason to expect the autumn semester there would “look and feel” much more like the one of 2019 than that of last year.

She also wrote that in “Fall 2021”, Brown will require Covid-19 vaccines for all undergraduate, graduate, and medical students. If you haven’t had the jab, you won’t be allowed on campus, unless you qualify for an exemption. Otherwise you study remotely or take a leave of absence, wrote the president of the private Ivy League university.

The letter encapsulates the hope at the prospect of finally moving on from the horrible grip of the pandemic, but also the reality that risks will remain in community settings. Our own universities are state-funded so unilateral action in this area would be highly unlikely. 

However, you’d imagine there would be nothing, for instance, to stop a privately owned grind school taking similar action when enrolling students in September. How about when you are booking a weekend break at a hotel in the autumn? Will you check the website to see if, as well as a top-class spa and golf course, all the staff have been vaccinated? Will you feel comfortable sharing the sauna with people whose vaccination status is unknown to you?

No employer can force an employee to get a vaccine, but you have to wonder what harm might an unvaccinated status do to a person’s job prospects. 

On one level vaccination certificates or passports seem like a needed, and welcome, key to freedom after so long in lockdown. But they also raise many legal, ethical, and privacy issues, not to mention technical ones. After all, this would involve secure digitised records of all the individuals vaccinated.

Vaccination success

In many ways this will be a problem of success — vaccination success. Taoiseach Micheál Martin has already indicated that we are backing the EU digital 'green certificate' on foreign travel. The 'green certificate' would aim to facilitate travel between the EU member states. Its point would be to prove that someone has received a Covid vaccine, received a negative test, or had recovered from the virus.

There is a mixture of views around the Cabinet table here about vaccine passports overall. For instance, the Greens are said to be concerned about the inequality for those who have not yet been vaccinated, not to mention the idea of encouraging air travel, which they object to as a rule on the grounds of pollution.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has already indicated that we are backing the EU digital 'green certificate' on foreign travel. File picture: RollingNews.ie
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has already indicated that we are backing the EU digital 'green certificate' on foreign travel. File picture: RollingNews.ie

Last week, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar spoke about how 'digital green certificates', along with rapid antigen testing, “could open the way to resuming hospitality, the arts, and live events safely” although this will probably be a few months away. These would provide “more freedoms for those who have been vaccinated”.

In a Facebook video, he said the Government is “keeping a close eye” on Israel, a world leader in the vaccination race, which has introduced such a pass. To qualify there, someone must have had both doses of a coronavirus vaccine or have recovered from infection. Pass-holders are allowed to access many places others may not, including gyms, restaurants, theatres and cinemas, sporting venues, hotels, and cultural events.

Now a group of senior officials is to be established to examine the issue here. They are expected to produce a policy paper on how such a proof of inoculation cert might work in Ireland.

Paths taken around the world

In Israel, the pass is displayed in a mobile phone app or physically. It is valid for six months, beginning a week after the second vaccine dose, or until the end of June 2021 for patients who have recovered from Covid.

Denmark, another country with a successful vaccination campaign, was one of the first European countries to launch a vaccine passport this week. Its 'coronapas' allows people to enter certain businesses, including hairdressers and beauty salons. Denmark is hoping to reopen its economy gradually by the end of next month.

In time, as restrictions loosen, the pass will be expanded to include restaurants, theatres, cinemas, and museums. The Danish government said the scheme would remain in place until the entire adult population has had access to the vaccine, expected to be before the end of the summer.

However, the coronpas is not to be used for travel, instead that will be the EU digital green certificate.

In the UK, prime minister Boris Johnson previously threatened that those visiting the pub would have to show a vaccine passport. But he’s rowed back on that and now the new Covid status certification scheme looks likely to be applied to mass gatherings and events like football matches and nightclubs. However, a number of Conservative MPs view this prospect as a huge affront to civil liberties.

In the US, president Joe Biden has decided against a system where Americans have to carry any proof they have been vaccinated. As a result, there will be no federal vaccinations database or federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.

The issue has been another flashpoint between Republicans and Democrats. Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene had said vaccine passports were Biden’s “mark of the beast”. At state level, Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, recently issued an executive order banning vaccine passports, calling it “unacceptable for either the government or the private sector” to require vaccination in order for citizens to be “able to participate in normal society".

Recently in Israel, the Supreme Court issued a preliminary injunction against the health ministry ordering that it not disclose personal data of individuals not vaccinated to local authorities there, or to the education and jobs ministries.

The Irish plan?

One can imagine such a move here by the Department of Health being greeted rather coolly, not to mention the rights that exist for Irish citizens, such as a right to an education. 

At any rate, in his raising of the issue, Varadkar was speaking in terms of a resumption of hospitality, the arts and live events, not issues to do with employment, which would directly relate to his brief as enterprise, trade, and employment minister.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has said it is keen for our society to reopen again but has concerns around bodily integrity and people being forced to take a vaccine against their wishes.

ICCL executive director Liam Herrick said it believes vaccine certificate systems at a national level would lead to a two-tier society. If they were mandatory for accessing certain goods or services, then that would amount to a form of discrimination and lead to problems with equality and data protection laws.

But where is the line here between the individual and the greater good? 

So far we have excellent levels of vaccine uptake. It could be counter-productive to be seen to introduce any element of force. 

Ultimately, though, there will be some level of refusal among our population. A vaccine passport offers an approach that best combines carrot and stick in these difficult circumstances. We need to have a discussion on how comprehensive we want our approach to be. Better to have it now than in the summer, when we are absolutely bursting to get back into circulation but the rules have not been laid down.

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