Of all the countries considering a domestic vaccine-passport system, Britain appears to be the most commonsense contender. Like Israel, it has administered vaccines at an incredible clip; nearly half its population has already received at least one dose. The country’s hospitalization and death rates have steadily fallen. And while much of Europe is going back into lockdown, Britain is gradually lifting its coronavirus restrictions, with indoor dining slated to reopen as early as next month.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed in a national address on Monday that his government is exploring the feasibility of “COVID-status certificates,” which would be acquired through vaccination, a recent negative COVID-19 test, or proof of natural immunity (such as a positive COVID-19 test from the past six months). Though these certificates would be required to access mass events and venues, including festivals, stadiums, and nightclubs, Johnson said they would not apply to essential public services, such as supermarkets and public transport.
The appeal of this kind of system is understandable. For countries that have already vaccinated much of their population, domestic passports offer the quickest and safest way to reopen their economy and get society going again. Proof of a jab seems like a small price to pay for freedom. Many countries already require proof of vaccination against specific diseases as a condition for entry. Plus, who wouldn’t feel a bit more comfortable venturing into the world knowing that everyone around them isn’t a vector of disease?
There’s also the added hope that tying access to places such as pubs and restaurants could persuade those who are hesitant about vaccines to get a shot. In Israel, lacking a green pass doesn’t completely exclude you from public life—you can still dine at a restaurant, for example, so long as you sit outdoors. “It’s just less comfortable,” Baram-Tsabari said. “It’s creating a situation in which the right choice is also the easy choice.”
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Though Israel’s green-pass system has been credited with motivating people to get a jab, that isn’t its primary goal. “The reason these rules have been put in place is not to encourage vaccine-hesitant people to get vaccinated,” Ran Balicer, the chairman of Israel’s national coronavirus task force and the chief innovation officer of Clalit, the country’s largest health-care provider, told me. “It’s simply done to make sure that vaccinated people can go and safely eat and enjoy cultural activities and not be exposed to undue risk during this process.”
The problem, however, is that intention and perception don’t always align. The pandemic has already inordinately affected people on the basis of race, gender, and socioeconomic status, and vaccine appointments are disproportionately being taken up by white Britons and those from more affluent areas. By making a return to normal social activity contingent on vaccination, natural immunity, or a negative COVID-19 test, those inequalities could be ingrained further. Though London has promoted testing as an equalizer that will prevent nonvaccinated people from being excluded, it isn’t widely accessible in Britain. Until it is, “the same people who are most at risk are going to be the same people who are least able to get a test,” Clare Wenham, an assistant professor of global-health policy at the London School of Economics, told me, noting the challenges facing those who cannot currently access testing due to cost, inability to get time off work, and transport issues.