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Vaccine and test passports

The Government’s unlock plans highlight the need for clarity on whether personal ‘Covid status certificates' will play a part in speeding up the event industry’s recovery.

Event companies and individual event professionals have paid a very high price to protect the vulnerable during the pandemic and should not now be required to continue to pay to protect those who choose to remain vulnerable by refusing a vaccine.

The UK Government’s unlocking plan throws into sharp focus the question as to the extent to which the minority of those who choose not to vaccinate or take a test will be allowed to hold back the freedom to work, travel and socialise for the majority.  The event industry’s recovery is entirely dependent on the speedy reestablishment of these freedoms.  It should be remembered that we will be living with Covid-19 and multiple variants for years or decades to come so the problem will not disappear even if the lockdown proceeds to the plan that the government has outlined.  This is not just about the right to work but the right of events and similar businesses to open their doors to visitors with the assurance that the event will not expose other visitors and staff to the virus. 

The UK Government’s previous laissez-fair attitude to letting businesses decide for themselves is now becoming more focused with the appointment of cabinet minister Michael Gove to head up a review into the idea of vaccine passports or Covid status certificates.  Israel, which has already vaccinated half its population, has an app-based certificate which holders can now use to gain entry to designated public places like gyms, libraries and museums.  Essentially, it is allowing high footfall businesses and venues to open-up, and employ staff, without waiting for the whole vaccination program to run its full course even though those who are not yet vaccinated have to wait. 

In terms of employment rights, Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Whitty has acknowledged that it may be necessary to require all NHS staff to have a vaccine as a condition of employment and likened it to the requirement for surgeons to have a hepatitis B vaccination before being allowed to operate.  Care homes may well follow suit since it is hard to mount a credible argument allowing staff to care for residents who are especially vulnerable to the very disease against which they have refused a vaccination.  The acid test is to consider whether you would commit an elderly and vulnerable parent to a care home that allowed unvaccinated staff to deliver care.  This debate follows mounting concern over the poor take up of vaccines by some NHS staff with take up in some ethnic groups being as low as 36.8%1.  The issue is not just confined to the medical profession.  Is it really conceivable that airlines will not require cabin crew to be vaccinated?  It remains to be seen the extent to which other professions will be allowed to take this stance but it appears that the argument that it would be illegal to do so in now moving in favour of employers.  It is highly likely that vaccine passports will become an established part of international travel just as a Yellow Fever immunisation certificate is required for entry to many countries.  In the case of Covid-19, Spain's tourism minister, Reyes Marotohas stated that travel corridors incorporating the vaccination certificate will be used "as an element of safe mobility".  More countries will surely follow. 

Conversely, there are obvious arguments for protecting the individual rights of individuals to refuse a vaccine but if the events industry were to put it a poll it is doubtful there would be much sympathy for this position by the 70% of event companies with less than 3-4 month’s liquidity, the 50% of event freelancers now on less than the minimum wage or the 80% of contractors staff who will have been made redundant by the end of Q1 of this year.  These are just some of the appalling statistics published in Stand Out Magazine which show just how destructive the lockdown has been on the events industry2.  Event businesses and individual event professionals have paid a very high price to protect the vulnerable during the pandemic and should not now be required to continue to pay to protect those who choose to remain vulnerable by refusing a vaccine.   

It is not just about the rights of individuals to go to events but the rights of event business owners and employers to return to their hitherto legitimate businesses in order to earn a living again.  If the price of allowing these businesses to open is the exclusion of those younger age groups still waiting for a vaccine for a few months many would say that it would be a price worth paying.  Not having a vaccine does not need to mean exclusion from society with good access to testing.  Those that have yet to be offered or choose not to vaccinate may have to live with the inconvenience of needing to take regular tests to work or socialise.  The argument is less easy to make when it comes to those who have a medical condition which precludes the vaccination and time will tell whether herd immunity will eventually overtake the issue or whether regular testing will have to become a feature of their lives for the greater good. 

There are some serious considerations before wholly embracing a ‘Covid free passport system, not least that Israel already reports a thriving market for forgeries.   

In the UK, our common law tradition holds that everything is permitted unless it is specifically prohibited.  Civil code countries like France flip that so that everything is forbidden unless it is specifically permitted.  Our safety laws reflect our common law tradition and are based on what is considered to be reasonable by balancing risk and cost rather than the application of prescriptive regulations.  There must be serious constraints to any such system so that it does not undermine the fundamental freedoms of free association that up to now British citizens have been able to take for granted. 

Herd immunity must be our ultimate goal.  Afterall, you do not need to show that you are vaccinated against measles (in many ways a far more dangerous virus) to go to a festival or attend school (although many argue that you should in the case of the latter).  Who wants to live in a country where a government official has to issue you a pass before you can meet with your friends?  Some form of passport system, however, may be necessary to get us to that point.  After a year of lockdown and endless media messaging about the dangers of mixing in public, a significant proportion of visitors may need some persuasion to attend events again and procedural checks to ensure that everyone else has been tested or vaccinated may provide that assurance.  There must however be a sunset clause on these arrangements so that politicians have to vote to continue such measures.  In the meantime, the events industry cannot just sit and wait this out.  We need to act quickly to offer clarity on the extent to which such a system would be desirable, practical and by extension affordable.  Testing at scale for every event and venue will be cost prohibitive even assuming there is sufficient capacity to do so.  It could be, however, a useful back up to fill in the gaps of the vaccination program.  For a year now the government has told us by diktat how to run our businesses and what is or is not permissible in terms of events and public events.  A passport system based on vaccinations and testing may allow us to take back much of that control. 

 Notes

  1. TheNHS study, yet to be peer-reviewed, was co-authored by Prof Kamlesh Khunti, a diabetes expert from the University of Leicester who is also a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). 
  2. Research coordinated by the British Visits and Events Partnership

https://standoutmagazine.co.uk/event-industry-on-brink-of-collapse-says-new-research