Oh, Britain. What happened? Six months ago European headlines looked on as the population rallied around a quick and effective vaccine rollout. But as the push slows for under-30s, the facade of trust between public and state is showing signs of wear.


The stick is winning

The chatter of incentives for younger people to get the jab — Euros tickets, Tinder badges, stadium tours — has all but been replaced by the threat of vaccine passports. Last week, the Prime Minister warned that entry to ‘places where large crowds gather’ — as yet undefined — and access to ‘life’s pleasures’ may require proof of a double vaccine dose from September. The ‘stick’ approach is still fairly new to Johnson. Readers will remember his articles against compulsory identification not so long ago.

With Labour opposed to the passports and a significant Tory rebellion brewing, it seems not all are ready to change tack. But the last 18 months have set the precedent. It is easy to forget that the guise of ‘public safety’ has justified a 40 per cent hike in stop-and-search, the arrest of peaceful protestors and the wrongful charging of citizens throughout the pandemic. Why be proportionate when you have the right intentions?

Young people may not remember the Identity Cards Act in the Blair years, justified by some loose connection to terrorism and axed by the Tory coalition in 2011. A decade later and freedom and security are once again butting heads. One explanation is that older people are narrowly in favour of vaccine passports. Fear undermines our sense of scale. Fear makes harm a higher priority, regardless of the cost. We must be careful that the means for preventing harm do not overstep their purpose. On the vaccine question — and even on mask enforcement — proportionality has to be the guiding test for how and when the state can intervene.

The question that follows is whether there is a way to achieve the same result but with less ‘stick’. The answer is yes. Nightclubs can currently request that punters show a negative lateral flow result before entry — though most are reluctant to do this for quite obvious reasons. So far, this is not enforced by law. Elsewhere, trials in European nightclubs without vaccine passports have proven entirely successful with tests and masks. One wonders why this more measured approach wasn’t the starting point in Britain.

But let us not be dragged into all or nothing thinking. Let us not reduce this argument to a battle between the wisened aged and selfish young people. There are myriad reasons why younger people are not getting vaccinated. Some do not trust their government. This is not the way to fix that. There are also those who have been advised to opt-out for medical reasons. And if, as we have established, there are other ways to mitigate risk then vaccine passports appease neither position.

A problem shared is a problem masked

The conflict between security and freedom does not mean there is no place for intervention. The enforcement of mask-wearing is a good example of where the state can provide a useful function that individuals cannot. Waiving liability on 19 July has only forced businesses to choose their customers at a time when they should be focused on financial recovery.

Owners may now discover that punters will not come to their venue if they refuse to enforce mask-wearing. Others may find themselves boycotted because they enforce mask-wearing. In this case, only the government can step up to enforce mask-wearing and offset the new responsibility placed on businesses.

Crucially, 6 in 10 say they wouldn’t use public transport unless fellow passengers were required to wear face coverings. Transport for London has since made mask-wearing mandatory for those not exempt on London trains and buses. But TfL enjoys a near-monopoly. Those who object to its policies can do very little. Elsewhere, the ultimate loser of devolved mask regulations will be small businesses as the public reexamines its relationship to its new prop.

The government has it the wrong way round. If it is happy to enforce vaccine certifications for clubbing, one wonders why mask-wearing has been left to personal discretion. And where businesses have already learnt to make adjustments for mask exemptions, one wonders why the same cannot be done for the unvaccinated. 

In both of these issues, leaders have confused the purpose of their measures. What we have, is an arbitrary system of policy that does not align with what it sets out to achieve. Fundamentally, vaccine passports highlight an oversight of why young people are slow to get jabbed. Trying to coerce the young sends a condescending message that they don’t know what they’re doing.

If the government is interested in rebuilding trust with younger people, it must show them that it is committed to understanding them.

Words by James C. Reynolds