Liberals should support voluntary vaccine passports

Photo courtesy Big Brother Watch

Government has intruded into our lives for too long. For the last year politicians and bureaucrats have dictated and governed our every move. In essence, the exercise of our freedom has been largely prohibited. And even though the pandemic is retreating, the full restoration of our liberties looks bleak. Indeed, leaving the country is conditionally banned, and some councils have made mask wearing in pub gardens mandatory.

Nonetheless, voluntary vaccine passports shouldn’t be seen as a step too far, in fact, defenders of freedom should cautiously embrace their proposal. Johnson’s support for allowing publicans and landlords to require proof of vaccination for entry is entirely in line with liberalism’s spirit. For at the justificatory core of the voluntary scheme is freedom of association. This right to form groups, and to exclude, is essential in allowing individuals to pursue their varied ends, and is a freedom that should never be curtailed.  

Whether or not the Covid Recovery Group likes it or not, we now live in a society sharply divided over its tolerance for risk. Some are happy to go back to the ‘old’ normal immediately, while others insist upon continued social distancing and masks. There’s a tension within the public, with the very risk-averse still wanting to impose their preference for risk on the entire population.

Freedom of association, through voluntary vaccine passport schemes, can ensure that both groups become as satisfied with the situation as is possible. By allowing cafes, restaurants, and pubs to decide whether or not to operate a passport system, there will almost inevitably be eateries that require a passport and those that don’t. This will allow the risk-averse to go to pubs with passports and those indifferent to go to pubs serving the normality of 2019. 58% of the public want to see vaccine passports, to legislate against them would deny the very risk-averse the ability to enter low risk pubs, only making them worse off.

Furthermore, prohibiting voluntary vaccine passport schemes would in actual fact be an attack on freedom. Consider how a prohibition on vaccine passports would work. If a publican required a vaccine passport, perhaps out of concern for his staff, or maybe for his profits, the authorities would fine him. If he refused to pay the fine, his license would be revoked. And if he still attempted to open, with passports, he would ultimately be jailed. Prohibiting vaccine passport schemes would be an unjustifiable restriction on publicans’ freedom to use their private property.

Steve Baker suggests vaccine passports will lead to discrimination and a ‘two-tier’ society. The pejoratives implied in these words need not be accepted. A ‘two tier society’ suggests one is better than another, but this wouldn’t be the case. Under Johnson’s suggestion, individuals would filter into those risk environments they felt most comfortable with. Everyone, not just one group, would be in a comparatively better situation.

And yes, discrimination isn’t necessarily bad either. If restaurants have always been allowed to discriminate against, and exclude, those individuals who don’t meet their dress codes, why shouldn’t they be able to discriminate against the unvaccinated? Just as a dress code may enhance a dining experience for some, so may the comfort of only dining with vaccinated patrons do the same for others.   

MPs needn’t be concerned with all pubs adopting passports either. If a large town’s pubs all did so, many would have an overwhelming incentive to ditch the passport scheme to attract the large unvaccinated population. Pubs would continue being converted to an open-to-all model until marginal pubs with the passport scheme believed that their profits would actually diminish by becoming open-to-all. Basically, capitalism would deliver a diversity of relatively high to low risk pub experiences.

Nor need Kate Nicholls, CEO of UK Hospitality, be concerned with the schemes’ cost as Johnson has suggested it would be entirely up to the landlord or publican. If they judged the administrative costs too high, they needn’t adopt any scheme. However, given 43% of the public would prefer to dine with the vaccinated only, pubs operating a passport scheme may find themselves to be more profitable than those that don’t.

Despite all the preceding, I don’t dismiss the scepticism of liberal MPs in considering Johnson’s proposals. Indeed, if vaccine passport systems were legally required, then they’d be entirely right to oppose the measure. A compulsory scheme would be a gross infringement on publicans’ and customers’ rights to associate with the unvaccinated.

What rightly worries liberal MPs is murmurs among officials that social distancing requirements will only be relaxed for passport-schemed pubs. This would practically force pubs to adopt passport schemes, or face possibly making losses. This would also outlaw unvaccinated individuals freely associating in conditions of the ‘old’ normal. Given no one is forced into going to the pub, or getting vaccinated, if individuals want to take the higher risk of a crowded pub, it should now be up to them.

In exiting lockdown it is imperative that every last one of our freedoms are restored. Nonetheless, liberals should ensure that they properly distinguish between those proposals that are a restriction on freedom, and those that merely appear to be. Freedom of association is integral to a liberal society, to sacrifice it now because one may dislike being excluded from a pub, would be unjustifiable. Voluntary vaccine passport schemes preserve freedom, they don’t diminish it, and as such they should be defended.

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