In recent weeks new Covid infections have fallen steeply. Over 32 million people have had their first vaccination. Most of us are looking forward to activities we’ve been deprived of for much of the past year. But many are also anxious at the thought of sharing venues with anyone who might have the virus, so they could be reassured by the government plans for Covid immunity certificates or ‘passports’.
But clearly, there’s a serious risk of discrimination, not least against those unable to have a vaccine – such as pregnant women – or younger people at the farthest end of the vaccination queue. They would probably be allowed to have their certificate show a recent negative Covid test instead of immunity, but this would mean very frequent testing, and not everyone lives within easy distance of a test centre.
Moreover, this government already restricts trade union rights, the right to protest and to asylum, etc. Although the government hasn’t yet made clear how these certificates would work, there’s a danger they would be used to make ID cards more acceptable, leading to greater state powers to monitor people for repressive or other anti-working class reasons – such as increased rationing of public services.
They would also strengthen doubts some people have about whether vaccination is in their own and their community’s interests, or for the benefit of big business and the state.
Since 1969, vaccination ‘passports’ have been required to enter countries where yellow fever is a risk. Hepatitis B vaccination is also required by many health workers. But these examples are a bit different to going to the pub.
Those with the highest risk from Covid-19 – the elderly and clinically extremely vulnerable – have been shielding most of the past year. Many see immunity certificates as allowing them to take part in social activities they would otherwise feel too risky to attend.
However, although the evidence is now convincing that vaccines prevent serious illness, it is still unclear how much they cut infection risks to other people. The results so far are encouraging – and the fewer infected people there are in public places, the less risk to everyone else. But new Covid variants could make immunity short-lived. Proof of vaccination in March might not guarantee immunity in October.
The government is making lateral flow tests freely available to everyone, but these miss many infectious people without symptoms, especially when self-administered. A trial in Liverpool found 60% of infected people undetected by these tests.
The tests also produce false positives, which should make people unnecessarily self-isolate while a more accurate PCR test is undertaken. Many low-paid and precarious workers can’t self-isolate as they aren’t paid enough to live on. Any worker isolating should receive full pay.
The government’s proposed immunity certificate would be worthless if it depended on unreliable test results. Even a Covid antibody test, indicating previous infection or successful vaccination, is not a guarantee of immunity. It is still unknown how long antibodies last and how effectively they will prevent new variants from spreading.
More clinically vulnerable people could take part in activities outside their homes with other more effective measures that prevent infections from spreading. Improved ventilation, extra extractor fans, air filtration units and similar measures are needed.
Big business must pay for its premises to be made Covid-safe. Trade unions need to decide whether they are in fact safe and not rely on false assurances from employers, or on supervision by cash-strapped local authorities or the Health and Safety Executive.
Government should pay for public buildings, financing councils with the money needed. Those small businesses that can’t afford to make their premises safe should be subsidised by the government to do so.
Even then, some places will be too small to allow safe distancing, and ventilation improvements may be limited. Some people may feel too anxious to go out for a meal or to the cinema unless reassured others present have been vaccinated, had a recent negative test or have antibodies.
However, as mentioned above, Covid certificates would inevitably discriminate against those unable to be vaccinated as well as those deciding not to be vaccinated. These may include low-paid workers who can’t get time off work to go to a vaccination centre. If relying on smart phones, people who can’t afford or don’t want one will be excluded.
Some people are not convinced the risk to them from Covid is greater than the risk from vaccines. This is particularly the case as the government, having failed so disastrously to protect people throughout the pandemic while shamelessly handing big contracts to its big business buddies, is the same government that now says people must get vaccinated.
Vaccination is a vital means of bringing the pandemic under control. Profiteering undermines confidence that vaccination is for our own and also our community’s benefit. Vaccine certificates will not strengthen confidence. They could be used to weaken workers’ struggles and further isolate already deprived minorities.
The whole process – from research to vaccine manufacture, distribution and discussion of its benefits and risks – needs to be brought under the democratic control of health care workers, trade unions and community representatives. The pharmaceutical and medical supplies industries need to be under public ownership as part of a well-funded and democratically run NHS.