Friday, 26 March 2021

Vaccine passports

No thanks
The government is running a public consultation on 'COVID-Status Certification' - vaccine passports to you and me. If it was hoping to grab the public's attention, it has succeeded. People have been talking about little else for the last two days.
It began with Boris Johnson rightly suggesting that pubs should be free to serve whoever they want, but the idea of the government banning people from going to the pub unless they can prove they haven't got the virus soon took hold. 
It's difficult to tell whether the government is seriously entertaining this or if it is media spin. Johnson's comments have been pretty vague so far and both Johnson and several ministers have previously ruled out the idea. On the other hand, the government is not exactly going out of its way to squash these rumours and we know from the last twelve months that the 'public health' zealots advising the government never miss an opportunity to stick the boot into the licensed trade.
It has been suggested that people prove they don't have the virus in one of three ways:
- An antibody test (for those who have previously had COVID-19)
- A certificate of vaccination
- A negative lateral flow test
Weirdly, it has been suggested that this won't happen in the short term, but will be ready for Christmas.
The arguments in favour of this idea are that a spike in cases is plausible once we reopen, particularly among the under-50s who have mostly not been vaccinated. 
Israel is pretty much back to normal but requires vaccine passports for various events (although not, I think, for merely going to a bar). 
Other countries are almost certainly going to require a vaccine passport if you want to go on holiday so you might as well get one. 
The vast majority of the British public look set to have the vaccine, so the people who lose out will be mostly anti-vax idiots and assorted smileys, and they can still take the lateral flow test. 
From the perspective of the pub trade, it's less costly to administer a status certification system than to mess around with social distancing measure.

The arguments against - which I find more compelling - are that the vaccines are remarkably effective and any spike in cases is going to have a low mortality impact and is not worth the cost and the blow to civil liberties. I haven't seen any cost estimates yet, but it is likely to be very expensive and time consuming.

It involves the government handling data and creating an app so it will almost certainly be a technological fiasco.

The system won't be up and running by 17 May when pubs are due to reopen. If there's going to be a 'third wave', it will probably happen in summer when large numbers of people are still not vaccinated. By Christmas, the whole thing should be over and COVID-19 should have an infection fatality rate equivalent to flu. So what's the point?

There is still very little evidence that pubs are significant venues of infection. There was no spike in cases when they reopened last July. Admittedly, this doesn't apply to nightclubs and other venues that could be required to demand certification.
Antibodies don't usually last very long in people who have had Covid-19. After a few months they get protection from T-cells which can be tested for but it is quite expensive. 
Antibody testing involves a blood test which seems a bit extreme when all you want to do is have a pint. The government has a record of all the people who have tested positive for Covid. That should suffice.

Although you are likely to need 'status certification' to go on holiday abroad, you only do that once a year. Taking a test every time you want to go to the pub is rather more onerous.

Putting up these barriers, even if only to a minority of customers, is going to deter people from going out. That is bad for them and for the businesses that rely on them. For all the talk about pubs this week, you'd think it was the 1930s when people went to the pub every day because they had nothing else to do. The reality is that pubs have been in decline for decades. Thousands of them close every year. Most of them are virtually empty until the evening. They are an expensive luxury, not a mainstay, for most people. Part of the reason for this is that people have nice homes to live in and get their friends round for a drink - which is exactly what they will do if the government literally treats them like lepers. This is economically and epidemiologically sub-optimal.
There is no obvious endpoint to it. The government and the public health establishment can't be trusted to relinquish its control. Quite a few of them have always liked the idea of identity cards and this is a step towards them.

It looks like young people won't get their first dose of the vaccine for at least a couple of months. The system is therefore inherently discriminatory against the young. Vaccine coverage among the under-40s would be nice to have, but the fatality rate among this age group is so low that it shouldn't unduly concern them or us whether they get a jab or not. Yes, they could possibly pass the virus on to older people, but the older people have been given a vaccine that gives them approximately 100 per cent protection against hospitalisation. Let's remember what Matt Hancock said only two months ago.

When Covid hospital cases fall and pressure on the NHS is lifted, he says, ‘That is the point at which we can look to lift the restrictions.’ So what about herd immunity, vaccinating so many people that the virus dies out? ‘The goal is not to ensure that we vaccinate the whole population before that point, it is to vaccinate those who are vulnerable. Then that’s the moment at which we can carefully start to lift the restrictions.’ But at that point the majority would remain unprotected. Would he — as Health Secretary — still say it’s time to abolish the restrictions? ‘Cry freedom,’ he replies.

Whatever you think of these arguments, they are all better than what the government seems to be thinking.
The Guardian confirms this:

A UK government source said: “If the argument on health grounds doesn’t really wash because young people think they’re going to be fine and their grandparents and parents have all taken it, the strongest nudge is: ‘You’re not going to be able to be as free as you’d like.’ Not being allowed into pubs may focus minds.”

If only people who talk about 'nudging' would read Nudge. The whole point of nudging is that it doesn't make people less free. A nudge would be telling people that 90% of their age group is going to get the vaccine, or perhaps warning them of the dangers of long Covid. Banning people from going out unless they have an injection is, quite obviously, a form of coercion.

The consultation ends of Monday. It's straight forward. You just e-mail with a comment. Keep it clean.

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