The accelerating Covid-19 vaccination campaign is bringing into sharper focus the question of how restrictions might be eased for those who are fully inoculated. The Government has already taken cautious steps in this direction, advising that those who are vaccinated may meet indoors or outdoors.
Further changes in advice for that group, which at present encompasses more than 270,000 people and could double by early May, are expected soon. It also looks likely that the EU will introduce certificates for travel within the union, akin to the yellow-fever vaccination cards that some countries require of incoming travellers.
More of a dilemma is whether to allow the vaccinated access to shops, venues and services. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has suggested that a "digital green certificate" or "vaccine pass" could, combined with rapid antigen testing, open the way to resuming hospitality, the arts and live events safely. It's an attractive idea. At a certain point, when large parts of the population have had their shots, it will become untenable to insist that they all behave much as they did when they had no protection against the virus. Vaccine passes would also provide a badly-needed boost to sectors that have barely operated in over a year.
But the question is fraught with problems, including potential breaches of human rights, so any system must be carefully calibrated to balance individual rights – including the rights to privacy and bodily integrity – with society’s wish to reopen safely. That means, for example, not allowing vaccine certs to become a route to de facto mandatory vaccination.
Our attempts to understand the forms of resistance that emerging variants may put up against the vaccines is still a work in progress
Those who cannot receive a vaccine because of disability or medical conditions cannot be excluded or have their movement restricted. If the pass is to be an app, what about those who do not, or cannot, use digital devices? What assurances would be provided about rolling back the system at a later date so that it cannot be used for broader surveillance purposes beyond the pandemic?
Some of these concerns could be met by granting access to venues based on either a vaccine cert or a negative PCR or antigen test result. But that would require the State to make it easier to access PCR tests, especially for young people, who will be the last to be vaccinated and who will make up a high proportion of those looking to go to concerts, night clubs or sports events.
Public transport, public services and essential shops should be exempt, and the State would have to monitor any schemes introduced by private companies to ensure compliance with equality legislation. Any system would have to be time-limited and flexible. After all, we still do not know conclusively that vaccines stop people transmitting the disease, while our attempts to understand the forms of resistance that emerging variants may put up against the vaccines is still a work in progress.