Vaccine passports?

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I wanted to say a little bit more about the possibility of vaccine passports coming into play over the next few weeks.  I hope that this doesn’t happen for two simple reasons.

  1. I’m aware that a significant number of people struggle with the concept on a moral/ethicl basis and even having received the COVID vaccines would be inclined to refuse to carry such a passport.
  2. I’m not sure that they are likely to be particularly affective at this stage in the pandemic.

To be clear, whilst I’m concerned about the consciences of others, I don’t personally think that there is a significant moral issue, though it depends upon how such a process is implemented. One concern raised has been that the measure will discriminate and restrict people from going to certain places such as bars, clubs etc (potentially churches if included). If the immunity passport looked solely at whether or not someone had received the vaccine (I think full dosage now in effect includes up to the booster) then that certainly would be restrictive on freedom.  However, early proposals for passports included a triple option of proof of vaccine, proof of negative test result or proof of reent infection giving a period of natural immunity. In such cases, restriction would not be indefinite but in effect would only apply for the one occasion when someone had a positive COVID test. I assume if they tested positive that they would not want to attend anyway. What such a test would do is to enforce the test and trace regime.

The second concern is that it’s a form of ID, a digital ID and potentially an infringement on civil liberties. Whilst I think there are issues with compulsory ID cards and systems, I don’t think that means it is automatically a breach of human rights/civil liberties infringement. Other countries with a commitment to democracy and civil liberties require some form of ID to be carried by citizens and visitors. This may be an “British” thing but its not against human rights. And whilst I’ve heard people argue that governments quickly impose restrictions but are reluctant to remove them, I would argue that our experience in a Western democratic context (primarily around the 2nd World War) is that temporary measures such as ID, call up, blackouts and rationing were lifted once the danger had passed.

The third concern raised about vaccine passports was that in effect it was a step towards compulsory vaccination.  This would then be considered a breach of human rights because people would lose bodily autonomy. Various documents, declarations and agreements have been cited as forbidding this, most notably the Nuremburg Code.  The code arises out of the Nuremburg trials where Nazis were prosecuted for war crimes committed during the war.  Whilst the code may not be legally binding, it is seen as ethically significant.  It is important therefore to understand what the code was about and what it was designed to do. The Nuremberg code specifically concerns war crimes and medical experimentation on people.  This is to deal with the claims by Nazi war criminals that their actions were justified as scientific experimentation.[1]  

On the basis that the code specifically deals with experimentation on people I don’t think it is relevant to our case here.  Notice that experimentation is different to using a drug that is in its early stages of usage.  However, there is a broader question here about human autonomy and consent.  On that, it is worth noting that many countries around the world have a form of compulsory vaccination in place as this map shows.

So, I think there is a clear precedent set to show that compulsory vaccination is not regarded as a breach of human rights. That doesn’t mean that compulsory vaccination is okay or that we should move towards it. However, an argument against it would have to be on a different basis.

Therefore, I don’t think that the case against vaccine passports can be made on the basis of 20th/21st Century human rights arguments.  Nor do I see anything in Scripture which rules it out in and of itself. We would however need to look closely at any measures and whether or not they affect Scriptures injunctions for believers to gather and for us to love our neighbour.  That is likely to depend upon the exact nature of any proposals.

However, I do think that when implementing measures its important that we are alert to the consciences of those required to comply. This wouldn’t in itself rule out their use, our democracy doesn’t work on the basis of a veto but it should give us cause to pause. This is specifically important because as I’ve argued else-where, I simply cannot see vaccine passports being of much use at this stage in the pandemic.

It is looking increasingly likely that the vaccines we are using will suffer a substantial loss of efficacy against infection from the Omicron variant. Hopefully they will probably still prove effective at preventing serious illness.  The purpose of the vaccine passport is to help reduce transmission of COVID but if the vaccine doesn’t do that then the passport won’t help.  So I cannot see any benefit to using them but I can see a lot of disruption. On that basis I don’t think this is a credible policy. Introducing them at this stage would in fact give the impression that decisions are based more on the desire to be seen to do something than on what is actually needed. That would seriously undermine any further efforts to respond to the virus and to bring the public with the Government.

And there in for me lies a significant issue. At the beginning of the pandemic we were told “follow the science.” Yet increasingly what we’ve seen is, in my opinion, the need to be seen to do something prioritised over finding out what needs to be done. This included local lockdowns in areas where COVID remained high after the first lockdown without anyone asking”so why didn’t the lockdown bring COVID under control in these northern conurbations?”

Currently we are adding countries to a travel ban/red list even though Omicron appears to be spreading through community infection. We now have reintroduced a facemask mandate even though facemasks don’t appear to have dented the fourth wave across Europe and alongside that there has been the mantra “get your booster jab” before we were clear as to whether it would help. I asked one public opinion former whether we could say that before we knew the impact on the vaccines of Omicron or whether a reconfigured jab would be needed urgently. Imagine the fallout if we’d all queued up for our booster only to be told that we now must wait 5 months before we can have the omicron compliant vaccine about to be rolled out.

As it happens it does look like we’ll be relying on those third jabs, a new vaccine won’t be deployed until March at the earliest and will take time to filter through the population. But people seemed ready to rush to tell us we must do things without any evidence that they were the right things to do.

Now, not only does this suggest panic and not only is it likely to undermine confidence in measure but from a Christian ethical perspective I do find that problematic. We have the creation mandate which requires is to steward this world and stewarding.subduing involves taking time to understand, furthermore, “just appear to do something” smacks somewhat of legalistic desperation in contrast to the Gospel which offers the exact solution we need.

So, if the passport comes into play and it affects churches, I don’t think we are in a situation where it would definitely be necessary to refuse to comply as some have suggested. However we would need to look carefully at what was being put in place. But I remain unconvinced that they will be of much use.

[1] BMJ_No_7070_Volume_313_The_Nuremberg_Code.pdf (

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