How I learned to accept Covid passes

Published by The i paper (25th October, 2021)

Yesterday I checked into a hotel in Berlin. Then I ate a cheese sandwich and drank a coffee in a bakery for lunch. In the evening I had dinner in a buzzing Italian restaurant followed by a beer in a bar as I strolled back to my room. Each time I was asked to show that I am vaccinated – just as in every art gallery, bar, hairdresser, hotel or restaurant that I have visited while in Germany. It takes a few seconds of fumbling on my phone. Usually I have got away with a screenshot of my certificate rather that having to scroll through my NHS app. Regardless, it does not seem a major effort or encumbrance, let alone a significant incursion on my liberty.

It was, of course, my choice whether to be vaccinated. I could have declined the jab and opted for quarantine on entry to Germany, followed by a barrage of tests during my trip to ensure I could stay in hotels and eat in restaurants. Instead I have now had three anti-Covid injections in 10 months. The reason is simple: I want to take every possible precaution to protect myself, my family and society, not least since I am asthmatic, in my late fifties and live with someone at high risk of fatality from this disease. But clearly not everyone takes the same view – whether from complacency, fear, lack of faith in the authorities or selfishness.

The German government acted because it was desperate to avoid another lockdown. There is also a mask mandate in public places; I have been barked at several times after entering a shop or café and forgetting to slap on my mask. This nation made a limp start to its vaccination drive. So Helge Braun, a doctor who is chief of staff to Chancellor Angela Merkel, warned that “vaccinated people will definitely have more freedoms than unvaccinated people”.

They brought in the “3G” rule: people must be “geimpft, genesen or getestet” (vaccinated, recovered or tested) for access to many places including beauty salons, cinemas, gyms and nightclubs. This helped drive up jab numbers. Vaccination levels now match the European Union average – which for all the Brexiteer mockery earlier this year, is only marginally behind Britain’s.

I have seen compliance across the country, while polls suggest about two-thirds of citizens supported the passes before introduction. But this draconian measure has not been without controversy. There is an angry rump of opposition that includes the new Querdenker (lateral thinkers) movement, whose supporters range from libertarian lawyers through to the far-right and anti-vaxxers. There has been violence at protests. Some demonstrators, contemptuous of their country’s history, have sewn the Star of David on clothes emblazoned with the word “unvaccinated”.

The poster child for such policies is France, scarred by infectious anti-vaccination views before the pandemic. One in three people feared vaccines were unsafe, the highest rate of scepticism in the world, while one in five thought they did not work. Polls indicated almost two-thirds of citizens would resist Covid jabs. Phoney scare stories spread fast on social media. Yet Emmanuel Macron – defying big protests and foes on both extremes – demanded vaccine passports for transport and hospitality venues (plus mandatory jabs for workers in many places). Now France has higher vaccine rates than Britain – and the policy is backed by almost four in five people.

This idea perturbed me at first. I am instinctively a liberal who dislikes state diktat. I loathed the idea of identity cards when they were proposed by New Labour since they seemed so authoritarian and un-British. Yet increasingly I wonder what all the fuss was about when we carry driving licences and give away so much information about our lives to untrustworthy technology firms. So let us accept the philosopher John Stuart Mill’s dictum that power should only be exercised over citizens against their will to prevent harm to others – as with seat belt rules or smoking restrictions – and then wonder why our government is so set against the idea.

Boris Johnson’s regime has had a pretty disastrous pandemic, flailing around and fatally slow to act, yet its solitary big success was the vaccine roll-out. This had a clear impact on Covid fatalities. The initiative has stalled in recent months, however, made worse by a muddle over jabs for children. Whispers at Westminster blame the Prime Minister for taking his eye off the ball to focus on the COP26 summit. Certainly as cases rise again, pressures on hospitals grow and we head into another dark winter under shadow of the pandemic, we know unvaccinated people are several times more likely to be hospitalised or die from this cruel virus.

Yet the Prime Minister last week rebuffed calls for mask mandates or vaccine passports. Maybe he thinks he is acting courageously like his celluloid hero, the mayor in Jaws who refused to close the beach amid panic over shark attacks. Yet Britain’s vaccination rates have fallen behind not just France’s but those of 10 other European nations. Several of them – including Portugal, with the continent’s highest levels – brought in some form of vaccine pass. “We shouldn’t be doing things for the sake of it,” said Sajid Javid blithely last month as he ditched plans for immunity passports for clubs and large events, underscoring how hopelessly lost he looks in his new job overseeing health and social care.

As I sit here writing my column in Berlin, in a café that demanded proof I present no risk to other customers, I find myself a convert to these measures. Any hesitancy is eradicated by the ease with which they can become part of everyday life. Denmark shows they can be rescinded once vaccination levels rise high enough. Ultimately, the real test of freedom is not flashing a certificate but for society to function without another devastating lockdown. And freedom to live is far better than freedom to die.

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