The entire process through which vaccine passports have been implemented has been an absolute shambles. In this article I want to lay out:
- The process by which it has been approved.
- What the different parties have had to say about it.
- Why I believe it is morally, scientifically, and fundamentally wrong.
The Process: An Affront To Democracy And Transparency
When vaccine passports/covid certifications were being proposed to the Executive, either Robin Swann or CMO Michael McBride would have come to the Executive to present their proposal. In a normal scenario whoever was making this presentation would give reasons and data in support of this policy and the Executive would debate and vote on it.
Then, once the decision had been reached, the Executive would present their decision to the media and journalists would ask questions about the issue – especially one with so many implications for wider society. They would ask things like,
- How will this scheme be run? How will it be paid for?
- What data do you have that convinced you that this policy will work? What about those who are opposed to the scheme?
- Have you run impact assessments on small/family businesses?
- What are the human rights implications? How will the data be protected? Will it be sold? Will it be anonymised? Who will bear the administrative costs? How long will this continue for?
Such a huge policy would usually require debate in the Assembly chamber, and consultations to be done with the affected industries before a vote would be taken.
Last night’s debate, two weeks after the hospitality industry were told to put the scheme in place, and on the day that fines are set to start to be enforced for non-compliance, we are getting our first debate. I find that to be a disgusting way for governments to rule.
What Do The Different Parties Have To Say: The Blind Leading The Blind
I’ve spent the past few weeks slowly trying to tease out information from each of the parties that make up the Executive as to their reasoning behind supporting this policy. It has been incredibly frustrating and difficult to find any information on why they back the policy, aside from the occasional posts on Twitter. So I had to start to email and phone all the parties, but even then there was little information forthcoming (some parties still haven’t responded to repeated requests for comment).
Before I begin to lay out the information I have gleaned from repeated phone calls and emails, I would like to say one thing.
Good governance relies upon trust and transparency and to see the MLAs of almost every major party dismiss all concerns about this policy as anti-vaxx or right-wing nutters is not only condescending, it further undermines the trust that you bemoan to have lost. There are real questions and discussions to have, but most politicians have been completely unwilling to even entertain alternative views or considerations on this. They simply say, as Paula Bradshaw did to me, that I mustn’t care.
They invoke moral superiority rather than addressing what I am saying. It’s arrogant, hubrstic, and morally bankrupt, to simply declare that I don’t care. The reason I am writing this and spent so much time working to discover the information in this article, is because I care about democracy and freedom. I sincerely believe that the reason we live in a prosperous and accepting society (mostly) is because we have freedom, equality under the law, and a democratic process. The covid certs undermine all of these values in one fell swoop and I don’t think it is something we should do without serious debate, consideration or evidential support.
Department of Health
The first question I had, was whether this policy would help to reduce the spread of covid. On the surface, that appeared to be the main motivation behind the scheme.
In the Department of Health documentation on the scheme (which is a paltry page and a half), they state the following:
“COVID-19 certification will therefore have the following benefits:
It will reduce virus transmission, primarily by reducing the likelihood of infections individuals entering high risk settings.
Hence, it will reduce the risk of serious illness and death and in doing so alleviate current and future pressure on the healthcare system.
It will increase the likelihood that higher risk settings can continue to operate as an alternative to closure or more restrictive measures.
There is also likely to be a secondary benefit in relation to increased vaccine uptake.”
None of the studies they cite have been peer-reviewed and the links provided to them state that they should not be used to inform a clinical approach. Which, for such a big policy, is another embarrassing detail.
So the argument is in 2 parts:
- Vaccinated people are less likely to have covid, so the covid cert scheme will reduce pressure on the health service by stopping unvaccinated and infectious individuals spreading the virus.
- The scheme will increase vaccine uptake.
According to a Lancet paper examining this idea that vaccinated folk are less likely to spread covid:
“People inoculated against COVID-19 are just as likely to spread the Delta variant of the virus to contacts in their household as those who haven’t had shots, according to new research.”
Though those who were unvaccinated were more likely to become infected if exposed to covid compared to those who had the vaccine (38% to 25%). But, people can still contract covid, vaccinated or not.
This is my first point of contention with the policy – it doesn’t seem to be justified to discriminate when that discrimination is suggesting vaccinated people are not likely to spread covid (which is blatantly untrue).
But, OK, I thought to myself, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps there is something I am missing here, maybe there could be some reduction in cases? So what is the natural thing to do in this case? To look at other countries who have implemented a similar policy. We’ve got plenty to choose from.
Except, none of the countries (Wales, Scotland, Israel, Austria, Italy, France, Ireland and more) who implemented such a policy were able to draw any correlation between this policy and a reduction in cases. In fact, the opposite has happened, cases have soared in all of these countries.
Paula Bradshaw contested that over an extended period, those countries that have implemented the scheme had a lower incidence rate than countries who hadn’t, but she failed to reference the studies she meant so we cannot assess the validity of that claim.
In the Monday night assembly debate on the issue, UUP MLA Alan Chambers asked rhetorically how we could know that they didn’t contribute to a reduction in cases (which by any measure is a very poor way to assess major policy proposals). Thankfully Chambers answered his own question – night clubs in the Republic of Ireland have since closed due to rising covid rates. As has happened in France. In the case of these two nations, only vaccinated people had been granted entry to nightclubs.
In response to my many questions (but without answering requests for evidence or data) the Alliance party issued this statement:
“Those who are vaccinated are less likely to become seriously ill and if they are not seriously ill, they are less likely to put pressure on the health service.
Therefore, we support the introduction of COVID certificates when looking at optional events, particularly when social distancing is difficult or impossible. We would not support them in relation to accessing public services.
Other measures are also needed to deal with COVID-19, as certification is not the only thing which will deal with the rising levels of COVID in the community. Primarily we need people to take personal responsibility.”
So the Alliance Party line seemed to be stating that their goal was to get as many people as possible vaccinated because it would reduce the strain on the health service by getting more people vaccinated.
They did not answer requests for evidence suggesting that the certs would prevent the spread of the disease. It seemed to me that they were suggesting, just like the DoH, that the vaccine passports scheme was being implemented to get more people vaccinated.
My frustration with this whole approach is that, it has been insinuated that the certs are to stop the spread, but instead, the rumblings began to appear that they were really about getting people to take the vaccine.
Paula Bradshaw confirmed these suspicions in an email to a constituent that I was sent in which she stated:
“The main aim of the policy is to discourage unvaccinated (and thus vulnerable) people from entering high-risk locations (typically those which are crowded and indoor); however, it would be an added bonus if it led to greater vaccine uptake and the early evidence is that it has done.”
She went on to state that the party is “not in fact hugely in favour of the Covid Pass, as a Liberal party. However, where other mitigations – ventilation, face coverings, capacity limits – are neither practical nor desirable, we do need to put in place this mitigation against to reduce risk particularly of resultant hospitalisation (given that Covid patients take up three times the resource of the average patient).”
In a particularly fraught back and forth on Twitter with Alliance MLA Kelly Armstrong (in which she managed to accuse me of not caring about people and of spreading fake news) she told me that the justification for the policy was “The facts provided by the CMO are that Covid is a killer and we need to do all we can to prevent spread.” After being challenged on whether she had considered the implications of segregating society based on a medical treatment, she fired back with a very strange response, “You should try being a person with a disability, society is already divided on health status.” She went on to say “we are already a divided society on medical grounds. I’m deaf – do I have the same access as everyone else, no. Don’t see you jumping up and down about that now, do I?”
First off, she is now attempting to justify segregating society, by saying we are already segregated. Which is not only insane, but not exactly a great reason to back a discriminatory policy either. And trying to imply that deaf people don’t have the same rights to access society – that’s an appalling accusation.
[For the record, if she has been denied entry to somewhere simply because she is deaf, that is wrong and I hope that there were some serious repercussions for whoever denied her entry based on her medical status.]
This is where it starts to all get quite disturbing. The attacks get more personal and the responses more deranged.
Paula Bradshaw compared the discrimination against unvaccinated people to the discrimination against drunk drivers (which to be honest I find to be a repugnant allegation):
“Secondly, they are not illegally discriminatory – any more than stopping intoxicated drivers from being in charge of a vehicle or smokers from entering a venue is discriminatory. It is reasonable and, indeed, established practice to put in place restrictions based on public health.”
The entire argument is so muddled. They seem to have no clear consideration of what this policy is for, it’s both discriminatory and not discriminatory, it both prevents the spread and also doesn’t.
Leader Naomi Long was more measured in her responses than some of her party colleagues. She conceded on Twitter that the scheme cannot be used across all industries and that there were moral qualms to deal with: “There are limits to the use of passporting – practical and ethical – particularly for hospitality.”
However, she went on to justify coercion/nudging as a basis for policy – suggesting that this scheme is simply designed to get those who are on the fence to take the vaccine:
“The behavioural science and surveying suggests some people will never get vaccinated, but others are more “what’s in it for me?”. The latter may well be swayed if they want to do activities which are impacted.”
When I asked her why they are basing policy on behavioural science, she retorted “We aren’t. It informs our communications and enforcement approaches.”
If you’re introducing a policy that doesn’t stop the spread of covid but is discriminating to encourage people to get vaccinated. That’s basing policy on behavioural science.
Now we come to the SDLP, the party that are pushing hardest for this policy, though they are also the party supporting covid certs that was most willing to speak to me on the phone about this issue and answer some of my questions about why they are backing the policy.
They told me that the scheme was designed to stop the health service from being overwhelmed. They conceded that “certification doesn’t stop the spread”, but that it did stop folks becoming hospitalised at the same rates and therefore reduces the burden on the NHS.
They pointed to evidence that such programs had led to greater vaccine uptake in other countries.
Whether the NHS is under stress due to covid patients and not a decade of underfunding and real terms wage cuts for nurses, is another argument for another day.
However, what they made clear was that this program has been introduced to drive up vaccination rates. When pushed on whether this is coercion or discrimination they denied that this was the case.
This is where the thinking becomes really muddled – they both think that the fact that vaccinated people need to jump through less hoops and are not denied entry to certain venues will encourage people to get vaccinated – this is discrimination and coercion. You may argue that it is justified, but any policy that treats people differently based on a single arbitrary metric is discrimination. You may argue that discrimination is justified, but it is discrimination.
When I challenged SDLP Councillor Séamas de Faoite on this issue, he presented the muddled thinking that continues to be mindlessly spouted by so many politicians.
First they begin by stating that the DUP shouldn’t be able to talk about discrimination, due to their historical positions.
“I’m not going to take lectures on discrimination from the party that opposed and even blocked my right to get married for years and opposes a ban on torturous conversion therapy. Paul Frew wouldn’t know what discrimination was if he ran into it in street… This isn’t discrimination. Responsibility isn’t discrimination. It’s expecting people to live up to that responsibility.”
The implication is, it’s not discrimination if I agree with it. Those who have campaigned for years under the premise that they care about equality and justice are showing their true colours. They only care when it is their side. It’s framed as a moral responsibility to get vaccinated, regardless of your health, age, weight, or whether you previously had covid. To say or do anything else is costing lives.
The fact that the NI Executive has repeatedly refused to consider any non-vaccine treatment is a joke. There has been no mention of the links between obesity and a poor immune response to covid, no discussion of what vitamin C and D deficiency can do to your immune system. These simple things could have saved countless lives. Yet they have the audacity to lecture us about health. The fact that a healthy diet and exercise was not pushed heavily by the Executive through the entire pandemic is laughable. They’ll tell people to take the vaccine, even remove their rights if they refuse, and fail to mention any proven ways to make yourself healthier. Even if it reduced the deaths by 5% – isn’t that worth it? It costs nothing, it infringes upon zero rights, and yet we fail to mention that the high levels of obesity in this country may well have contributed to a number of covid related deaths. This is not about health.
Robin Swann, our esteemed Health Minister has been the one pushing this policy the hardest.
His argument in favour of the scheme was best summed up in his remarks towards the end of the debate on covid passports: “you’re better preparing for a storm when it’s not raining rather than being up to your knees in the water”.
This implies that the scheme will work to prevent the spread of the virus – which we have discussed is based on flimsy evidence at best – and that this intervention is key to ensuring that more restrictions are not introduced. Yet, every country that has introduced them has further ramped up restrictions after these passes were implemented.
This muddled and wholly disingenuous line of argument is becoming rather tiring. There is no evidence to back their policy, many politicians are openly stating that this is about increasing vaccination, and yet they continue to say – this will prevent the spread and introduction of further restrictions. The disturbing part is their utter unwillingness to listen to anyone who opposes the scheme, instead they deride them:
“I welcome the fact that the majority of this House – the clear majority – have not so easily succumbed to the irrelevancy of the social media vacuum of naysayers and doubters.”
Roy Beggs, a UUP MLA for East Antrim, was kind enough to lay out the reasons for the policy in a letter he wrote to a constiuent. He assured us that “there is clear evidence that a mandatory COVID-19 certificate scheme is effective, as is the hugely important booster campaign.” – evidence, which we have already discussed is flimsy at best.
He went on to state that
“They [Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser] were also clear in their advice to the Executive that it was unlikely that Northern Ireland could reduce its rate to less than 1 unless there was also widespread use of COVID certification across higher risk settings.”
The arguments go in circles, time and again. They continue to say clear evidence has been provided. But we have not seen any. They keep saying the policy is not discriminatory, since it allows for a negative test to be used. But treating the vaccinated and unvaccinated differently, despite the fact they can both catch and transmit the virus, in order to stop the spread is wholly illogical. Unless your goal is to nudge people into taking the vaccine.
If this is the way we are now to treat public health, I will welcome proposals by the Executive to enforce Body Mass Index passports to encourage healthy eating and to reduce the strain put on the health service by obesity.
Despite Sinn Fein opposing the policy in the Republic of Ireland, Michelle O’Neills party have come out in favour of the scheme, accusing the DUP of being on the wrong side of public health. Stormont Health Committee chairman Colm Gildernew said his party would back the scheme, adding that an “unprecedented public health emergency requires unprecedented actions and measures to protect our people and our health services”. Once again citing the idea that this will reduce cases, the spread of covid, and therefore reduce pressure on the health service.
But this is quite the turnaround since last month, when Michelle O’Neill told reporters: “On the issue of these domestic certs for access I have issue with those things… I would be worried in terms of it being a discriminatory system, you know there’s a whole lot of human rights concerns and other things that goes with that.”
It does beg the question, do they no longer have these concerns? If not, then why not?
Stunningly, of all the parties in Northern Ireland, it is the DUP who have come out vocally in opposition to this policy. A party long accused of not caring about human rights, justice, or equality, are now the only ones standing up for those values.
To his credit, Paul Frew has been openly and vocally against the scheme from the outset and the party soon followed.
In the debate yesterday, Frew summed up wonderfully why the DUP have opposed the scheme
“Regulations must be fit for purpose and evidence-based, proper scrutiny must take place”. He cited concerns about equality of access for elderly folks, those with medical exemptions, and the lack of impact assessments that have been done. He also criticised the lack of evidence presented in support of the scheme, the lack of economic impact assessments, the lack of markers for success or failure, and the lack of assessment of the failure and impact of such schemes in Scotland, the Republic of Ireland, and beyond.
Why It Is Wrong
First off, let’s see whether it worked to encourage vaccination. A handy FOIA request meant that we can see the level of vaccination pre and post vaccine passport announcement –
27/10 – 17/11 = 25,163
18/11 – 9/12 = 23,584
So there was actually a drop of 1,579 1st dose vaccinations post announcement. Now this is just first vaccinations, but the idea was to encourage folks to take it who have not yet – which, based on this evidence, we can say it did not.
For those who argue that we are in a dangerous situation and that action needs to be taken now. I would refer you to the rates of deaths and hospital admissions in Northern Ireland. With the vaccines and the booster program, we are in a much better place than last year. I see absolutely no reason to introduce the harshest restrictions to date, with no discussion, impact assessments or proper scrutiny.
Hospitality Ulster has already reported massive reductions in business since the implementation of the scheme, with many cancelling Christmas parties (though it is not clear whether that is because of the covid certs or because of fear of the new variant). They have bemoaned “huge losses across all of the sector” from the day that the passes were introduced. It seems willfully negligent to have implemented this scheme without conducting impact assessments – this will cost jobs and livelihoods in a sector that has already been ravaged by covid restrictions.
The quality of discourse and debate over the covid certification has been even worse than the usual green and orange clashes we frequently have here in Northern Ireland. Leaders of all our parties are usually happy to stand in front of cameras to pontificate and blame them’uns, but in this case the silence is deafening.
Politicians who have often preached about the virtues of transparency and democracy have been revealed to care very little about these principles. The excuse has been, for more than 18 months now, that this is an emergency, a crisis situation, and that we cannot allow discussions about morals and principles to hinder the swift action required in an emergency.
I believe this to be a thoroughly backwards and cowardly way of thinking. In moments of crisis and upheaval, all we have are our principles. If we lose those, then what kind world are we saving and creating for our children. One in which they have less freedom or rights than we have enjoyed until this point? How can we pretend to live in a fair and just society if we choose to abandon the values of freedom, democracy, and equality when things look darkest.
In the 20th and 21st century, huge swathes of world moved from monarchies and dictatorships slowly transforming into the free and democratic nations of today. This has not been the norm for 99% of human history – it’s worth remembering how lucky we have been to live in the safest, most diverse, and most affluent times and places in human history to date. It’s also worth remembering the values that gave us that; democracy, freedom, equality, and justice. Basic guaranteed human rights, civil liberties, and the gift of self governance – freedom of speech, movement, assembly, and privacy.
We stand to undermine that all in one fell swoop. We are happily waving through a massive expansion of government power
There is so much more I could say here, on the data protection implications, human rights abuses, the dangers of a centralised certification system that grants access to society, but I have rambled on for long enough. I shall leave you with this.
When I asked Paula Bradshaw about the impact upon human rights back in June, she had this to say:
“Human rights are not absolute – it is always accepted they can be restricted in an emergency, not least to save lives as in this case.
Nevertheless, we should not just “get used” to these liberties being withdrawn…. unless there is a clear reason for maintaining a restriction, it should be withdrawn. As a representative of a liberal party, I state words to this effect in every Assembly debate on the matter.”
Yet here we are, with no evidence, and liberties are still being routinely withdrawn or threatened. Freedoms are not a bargaining chip. Discrimination is wrong.