18 February 2021
The next U-turn.
By John Watson
Of course Canute knew. A competent ruler by the standards of those days, he was not such a fool as to think that the waves would really roll back at his command. He gave his celebrated order to the sea knowing perfectly well that it was nonsense. How odd that just over 1000 years later Mr Johnson should find himself in the identical position on the less dramatic subject of Covid passports.
We British tend to nod to principle and then ignore it. On the continent they take political theory seriously, seeing it perhaps as a necessary bulwark against populist movements and disruption. We, on the other hand, believe in the pragmatic, a suitable stance perhaps for a country which is content to have its church governed by its Head of State.
That is why it is a surprise to hear the Prime Minister eschewing the possibility of Covid Passports, that is to say official documentation confirming that the holder has been vaccinated, on the grounds that they would be an infringement of personal liberty. True, if the Covid Passport became – as it would – a condition of entry to flights, theatres, restaurants, etc, it could become so difficult to function without one that inoculation would in effect become compulsory (save for those with some certificate of exemption). Yes, too, compulsion of that sort could be regarded as an infringement of freedom; but, however much these arguments may weigh with the theorist, the practical implications of not introducing a Passport scheme mean that in the end the government will have no choice but to do so.
Imagine how things will work out. Begin by assuming that somewhere, say Australia, introduces the scheme and it becomes impossible to enter that country without the necessary paperwork. Assume too that that is a success so that, within Australia, people live a normal life and the incidence of Covid is nil or trivial. Now turn to New Zealand, a country which has all but excluded Covid by imposing the toughest quarantine controls. They will be anxious to let the tourists back and to do so without importing the virus. They could of course achieve that by forcing all their own citizens to be inoculated, but there is an easier route – to follow Australia’s example. And the other big tourist destinations will follow it too. After all, why wouldn’t they? It adds little to the cost of a holiday to get jabbed, even assuming that you’re one of those who have not already been injected. Business destinations will not be far behind and before long international companies will expect their employees to be inoculated to enable them to travel freely and to avoid the disruption which would follow their becoming infected.
The cost of the UK of refusing to issue passports in the circumstances would be high. British people would be limited as to where they could go on holiday. Business travel too would be affected. Envious eyes would be cast on those jurisdictions which provided passports, and the political pressure would become impossible to resist. The very fact that only 1% of those invited for vaccinations turn down the opportunity, gives some indication of how impatient the public would be of being refused Covid Passports when the rest of the world have them.
The government must know this and that at some stage they are going to have to perform the U-turn of making Covid Passports available. There is an interesting point of timing, however. If they do it before the time when anyone can pick up a Covid vaccination quickly at will from their doctors (presumably sometime this summer), the Passports will acquire a monetary value and the authorities will need to deal both with forgery and with those who want to travel but have not managed to get the necessary injections. If, on the other hand, they wait until anyone can get Covid injections at a small cost, there is not going to be a market in false passports because they will be valueless. Perhaps it is this which lies behind the reluctance of the Government to issue Passports at the moment. One would like to think so. On the other hand it may just be that some libertarian noodle has persuaded them that principle is more important than practice. If so, they should think about Canute.