Scientists urge caution over proposals to impose vaccine passports in UK

Proposals to impose vaccine passports and other restrictions on the movements of unvaccinated people in the UK should be treated with caution, scientists warned last week. Such plans would not lead to rapid reductions in Covid-19 case numbers and could trigger hostility to future vaccine campaigns, they said.

These warnings were made after several European countries – including Belgium, Germany and Norway – revealed last week that they were preparing to beef up measures to tackle low uptake of Covid-19 vaccines as case rates continue to rocket across the continent. On Friday, Austria announced it would become the first country in Europe to make coronavirus jabs mandatory. All citizens will be required to have one from 1 February next year.

Slovakia is also banning unvaccinated people from all non-essential stores and shopping malls, while in Greece new restrictions will prevent visits to bars, restaurants, cinemas, museums and gyms.

The crackdown led to widespread protests across Europe. Tens of thousands of people – carrying signs saying “no to vaccination” – gathered in Vienna’s Heroes’ Square, and Dutch police shot and wounded at least two people after rioting erupted in Rotterdam over new Covid-19 measures in Holland.

Opinion polls also suggest vaccine passports enjoy substantial support in most countries. “They are a way of encouraging people to have jabs and to bring down Covid-19 transmission rates,” said Professor Mark Woolhouse of Edinburgh University.

“However, it takes time to vaccinate millions of people, and a further two weeks before a person becomes fully protected. So if the priority is to bring down transmission rates as quickly as possible, I wouldn’t reach first for vaccine passports. I would reach first for things like negative-test passports.”

This point was backed by Raghib Ali of Cambridge University. “I don’t think mandatory vaccines are a good idea,” he told the Observer. “The key thing with vaccination is to maintain the trust of people. If you remove consent from people to take a medication or a vaccine, that would be lost.”

A crucial factor is that the UK is not in danger of following Europe, he added. “Europe is following us in terms of case numbers because of the later arrival of the Delta wave on the continent and because their immunity is waning later than here due to their vaccine programmes starting later.”

Simon Williams of Swansea University pointed to Scotland’s certification scheme, which required those attending nightclubs and large sporting events to reveal their vaccination status: “The evidence is, at best, the scheme produced only a slight increase in vaccination rates.”

Williams added that if vaccine passports were introduced, they would be unlikely to cause a backlash amid those who were merely hesitant about having a jab. “But for those who are strongly resistant to the vaccine, there is a real risk of a counter effect, which could have unwelcome consequences when you come round to introducing new vaccine programmes for Covid, or flu or other illnesses.”

This point was backed by UK vaccine expert Peter English. “The ‘problem’ with mandatory vaccination is it doesn’t necessarily tackle the issue of vaccine uptake, particularly when it’s already quite high. It is hard to enforce. How do you vaccinate somebody who refuses consent? Does it actually increase the proportion of the population who take up the vaccine? Does it increase distrust in vaccination, increase dissent and protest, and thus actually drive down vaccination uptake?”

Professor David Matthews of Bristol University said it was critical to keep talking to adults who had decided not to have the vaccine here in the UK. “We need to engage with them and hopefully they will think again about their reasons for not getting vaccinated in the light of the information we have from around the world that the vaccines are safe and they work. Vaccination is easily the most effective way out of the pandemic and the best way avoid more lockdowns.”

However, Professor Lawrence Young of Warwick University was emphatic that vaccine passports should be considered an important weapon in the battle against Covid-19.

“If current levels of infection and hospitalisations in England continue or rise even further, we will have no option but to limit virus transmission by introducing some form of vaccine passport, alongside re-introducing compulsory facemasks in crowded, poorly ventilated indoors spaces. These are minor inconveniences that could really help us through the winter months alongside the continued rollout of booster vaccinations.”

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