Ireland seems to have no exit strategy for our vaccine pass system

It makes no sense for vaccine passes to become semi-permanent

Bringing in vaccine passes to allow for the reopening of society was a reasonable and proportionate thing to do given the circumstances that prevailed and the danger of widespread restriction of society and commerce without them.

The problem with them is that now there seems to be no exit strategy. Businesses are in danger of getting pulled in to be the long-term enforcers of a measure that is clearly subject to the law of diminishing returns.

The Dáil on Wednesday night approved until next March the extension of the emergency laws underpinning the use of the European Union’s Covid certificate for access to indoor hospitality, events and gyms. There is a possibility under the latest proposed law that the scheme could be extended beyond March for a further three months.

And then what? What will have fundamentally changed about the profile of the virus and the medical interventions available to stem its tide by early next summer that would then allow for the system to be discontinued?

Would the game-changer be the future release of new variant-busting vaccines to tame Omicron? But surely then there would be a desire for people to prove they had the new Omicron vaccine booster, and a renewed clamour to extend the vaccine pass system all over again.

Repeat for the next variant, and then the next one and, inevitably, the next one... It could become a self-sustaining loop, an endlessly spooling egg-timer of a restriction that lasts as long as there is even the remotest hint of a threat from any new Covid variant. If it goes on that long the structure of the system might outlast the threat from the virus itself.

This is a danger to which we must remain alive. Vaccine passes have to end sometime, and we should start thinking now about what the end might look like.

It would be negligent to blithely sleepwalk into a situation where the vaccine pass could, if society grows too comfortable with it, become a semi-permanent feature of everyday life. That is not the rationale under which the vaccine pass system was initially introduced, and it would not be a good thing for Irish society for it to persist for too long.

Long-held values

As a long-term measure it would pose a risk to our long-held values. They still matter even if you can justify temporarily suspending them here or there. Eventually you have to stop doing that. It should be the norm to challenge our own received thinking on such matters or else they risk becoming shibboleths.

The initial utility of the vaccine pass system was as a means of getting shuttered parts of the economy back open again, and also as a fairly blatant tool of soft coercion to nudge the vaccine-hesitant into taking up the offer of jabs.

There is a reasonable argument to be made that such soft coercion to reach a collective public health goal is justifiable in a crisis situation as long as it stays away from denying people access to the fundamentals of life, such as work, education and healthcare.

A vaccination rate of 93 per cent is basically the jab equivalent of 5 per cent jobless being 'full employment'

And also as long as the measure has a shelf life attached to achieving those specific public health goals.

But it should never be accepted as a new normal, a measure to be left in place unquestioningly until nobody knows when.

Once you get up to 93 per cent adult vaccine coverage, as Ireland has, and public health authorities start shutting down parts of the economy again anyway due to a partially vaccine-escaping variant, then the practical utility of the vaccine pass system starts to wane like a 91-day-old Pfizer shot.

A vaccination rate of 93 per cent is basically the jab equivalent of 5 per cent jobless being “full employment”. At that stage, once you’re stuck at a number, the vaccine pass has clearly little real practical effect on convincing people to get jabbed.

The minute the system stops being practically beneficial, and instead starts to look like a way of directing resentment towards people who chose not to be vaccinated in the first place, then we ought to robustly question what we are doing here, and why.

Stupid decision

I am firmly among the majority of people in this State who believe it is a stupid decision by any individual who chooses not to get vaccinated without a compelling medical reason such as an allergy or a material risk of a reaction.

Most people who say they refuse the vaccine because they are worried about the impact on their health are not being entirely honest – they do it out of stubbornness because Covid is clearly a bigger risk to their health. I cannot prove in a court of law that as their motivation but it is what my wits tell me, nine times out of 10.

To refuse a vaccine as an act of defiance in some tiresome culture war is truculent, selfish and juvenile. I believe it is also crass stupidity. But ultimately I have to accept that people have the right to make decisions that I think are stupid.

It should not go unnoticed that the European position is now a good deal more hardline than the one so far enunciated by our own Government

Importantly, they also have as much right as I to participate normally in society in the long term once we’ve moved beyond acute crisis mode and are getting on with things as best we can. The status quo on passes can’t be permanent.

It is imperative that the Government spends time and serious effort now on devising a credible strategy for how the vaccine pass system, as a prerequisite for engaging in everyday commerce, eventually can be discontinued.

There is no point in Ministers expressing their regret and promising that they will end the pass system “soon” if they have’t a bog’s notion as to how that might be achieved. Are we to maintain the pass system for years? Because unless we think seriously about an alternative, that’s where we’re headed by default.

Nine months

There is another fly in the ointment. We have based our entire vaccine pass system on the EU's Covid certificate, which was designed by the European Commission. The commission now wants the certificates to automatically expire nine months after every shot.

That suggests the system will be deployed robustly by European authorities to bring citizens back repeatedly for booster shots for as long as the virus persists. That might make sense to public health doctors, but it is also a massive dose of mission creep when you compare it to the arguments that were advanced for the initial introduction of the certificate.

It should not go unnoticed that the European position is now a good deal more hardline than the one so far enunciated by our own Government, although it has deftly hinted at going that way – we’re hardly going to accept invalid EU certs in this country.

But Ireland should be careful about being led by the nose on these issues by the European Commission. This is the same body whose leader Ursula Von Der Leyen recently expressed support for mandatory vaccination for everybody. That really must be a red line.