Boris Johnson’s plans for kovid ID cards have all sorts of implications for civil liberties and racial equality. But they have a more fundamental problem: they won’t work.
This is probably why the coalition against them is so diverse. The lockdown skeptics are suddenly on the same page as Indie Sage through a bizarre twist of fate. We can safely ignore the former group, but the latter commands attention. You have repeatedly been ahead of the curve on the pandemic response and strongly oppose this proposal. It is worth investigating why.
Here’s the thing about this pandemic: we know what’s working. It’s about getting down to the basics. We follow our existing vaccination strategy while trying to suppress the virus at the same time. These two things should work together so we are trying to achieve population immunity while controlling the virus in the process.
There are two major dangers right now. The first is another wave. Just because most of the elderly have had a vaccine doesn’t make us sure. Over 50% of the Chilean population had a dose, but they have only just locked themselves out in the face of a big wave. People who have had no bumps at all are also at risk. Many people in their fifties, forties, and even thirties have health problems. Sage estimates that we could lose between 9,000 and 20,000 lives in the summer.
The other, greater danger are variants. They threaten to put us back in first place. Each new infection is another chance for the virus to mutate. Those mutations that prove to be resistant to the vaccine spread very quickly. This is a race between the vaccine and the evolution of the virus, with both vying for supremacy.
That is why immunity is not enough. We have to suppress the virus.
For this we need a functioning test and trace system. It has become out of fashion to talk about it. Johnson hardly seems to mention it anymore. However, it is the basic requirement to prevent further waves of infection. When an outbreak occurs, we can trap and contain it before it explodes across the population.
Contact tracers should be local workers who understand the area and can trace contacts, rather than the central telephone centers that we have unnecessarily installed hundreds of kilometers away and that do not understand the population they are dealing with.
Those who come in contact with someone who has the virus must be isolated and tested. But at the moment, many people are not. The Covid-19 study to quickly measure compliance with interventions and responses found that only 52% are self-isolated.
Many just cannot afford it. The £ 500 payment to the Isolator applies only to those in receipt of benefits, meaning only one in eight workers is eligible. Given that many people don’t make any money, or maybe even lose their jobs, they keep going to work. And then they keep spreading the virus.
We can also make it harder for people to get infected by properly ventilating schools, offices, and restaurants. There are a number of ventilation solutions: unlocking windows to open them fully, maintaining special exhaust ventilation, using fans through windows to maintain air circulation, introducing portable filter systems to improve air purification, and using UV germicidal radiation. But here, too, it costs money and requires attention. And again it is not done.
We can also close the borders. This can prevent a new vaccine-resistant variant from even reaching the UK. Europe is currently offering a grim case study. In December there were hardly any cases of the Kent variant on the continent. Now it is responsible for over 70% of cases in Denmark and between 50 and 70% of cases in France, Belgium, Italy and Germany.
This process can be done in reverse order. In France, between five and ten percent of cases are of the South African variant, and yet people from that country keep coming to the UK. Border Force figures – which the government does not “recognize” – suggest that around 20,000 people come to the UK every day, around 40% of them on tourist visas.
With those things done now, we could pretty much guarantee that we would never need a lockdown again. It would be summer and next fall we would stay free, go out, work and socialize. Even social distancing shouldn’t be required within six months. But when they are not finished, we are completely prone to coincidences. Maybe we’re lucky and there won’t be a new variant. Or maybe not.
The main argument against Covid ID cards doesn’t particularly concern them. It’s just that they aren’t. We know what needs to be done and we don’t. Instead, the government is frantically chasing another impractical and counterproductive high-tech solution.
They are also flawed on their own terms. The current position of No. 10 appears to be, as far as can be seen, that it is not needed for essential purchases – for example for the supermarket. However, they are needed for large events such as soccer games or night clubs. And they might be required for pubs and restaurants.
This last part is very confused. Johnson won’t speak clearly about this. However, the document released by the government on Monday strongly indicated that this was the direction of travel. “It is possible,” it said, “that Covid Status certification could also play a role in reducing social distancing requirements in other environments that people visit more frequently, such as the hospitality industry.”
That is a statement aside. It is in line with reports from within the government that Covid ID cards are being seen as a way to remove the need for social distancing in pubs.
But there is a problem. Vaccines don’t stop infections. If you are vaccinated you can still get sick. It’s just a lot less likely to get sick, go to the hospital, or die.
There is definitely a decrease in the transmission of the virus from people who have the vaccine, but it is very unlikely to be complete and it is too early to know exactly what it is. As the World Health Organization said this week, “We’re not sure at this point that the vaccine will prevent transmission.” We also do not yet know how long the vaccine will provide immunity. It could take well over a year. It could take less than six months.
Now imagine we use Covid ID cards to get into a pub and then remove the social distancing inside. The windows are closed. People spend hours there – drinking, talking, laughing, hugging, singing, screaming – all of the things that make pubs the best places in the world and also mean the virus is most likely to spread.
Some of these people may no longer have immunity. But even if they have immunity, they can still be infected. This infection may not make them sick, but once they leave the pub they can infect others who haven’t had the vaccine. And every time this happens, potentially more vulnerable people in the younger age groups are exposed. And there are more ways for the virus to mutate.
The government also seems to want people to get a Covid Pass if they took a test that day or the day before. But a negative test yesterday doesn’t mean you don’t have Covid now. And Covid tests are very easy to play to prevent a positive result.
What we need is a strategy of suppression. However, Covid ID cards don’t offer it. In fact, they give a false sense of security and then encourage a type of behavior that can make infections worse. This is actually an extension of the government’s persistent weakness in prioritizing short-term economic interests over a long-term public health agenda.
The only other argument you can make about Covid ID cards is that they could encourage people who are not sure about the vaccine to hurry up and take it.
The truth is, the UK has a very low rate of vaccine reluctance. A poll yesterday by Ipsos MORI found that white British reluctance had fallen from seven percent in January to five percent in March. Among the British ethnic minorities it had fallen from 22% to 6%.
People have reasonable concerns about vaccines. Many ethnic minorities instinctively suspicious of government institutions that have treated them badly in the past. Therefore, successful public health programs are rooted in communities. You are more likely to talk to people than to them. They listen to their concerns and address them. They have general practitioners phoning around their patients, community hall events, and local community leaders from different ethnic and religious groups speaking to those who trust them.
Much has been written about the Israeli green pass system, which appears to be the model for the Covid ID card system that Johnson wants to implement here. However, research suggests that the most effective measures weren’t mandatory – they were about engagement and accessibility. Mobile vaccination units have been brought to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish town of Bnei-Brak, for example, or to geographically remote Arab villages and even to the central nightlife of Tel Aviv, where free food and drinks are offered. Experts are available to answer questions and concerns.
Forcing people takes exactly the opposite approach. And that is exactly what Covid ID cards do in the end. They prevent you from participating in normal life unless you stick to it. This directly reinforces the central message of the anti-Vax activists: Vaccines are about state control. And it turns health professionals and professionals who need community trust to promote vaccine uptake into suspicious objects.
Covid ID cards are the wrong solution to the wrong problem. They will not deal with the vaccine’s hesitation and threaten to promote it. They don’t prevent infections or mutations. They are not going to help the economy because they keep the conditions under which it struggles. And they distract us from the very rudimentary things we should be doing to quell the virus.
They certainly pose a threat to civil liberties and racial equality. But they also fail on their own terms.