I had to pinch myself this week when the Foreign Secretary, sitting with the Union Jack hanging behind him, said a domestic vaccine passport for access to supermarkets was “under consideration”.
By for The Telegraph
Adebate is raging about whether the British public should be forced to have vaccine passports to reclaim our liberties. The relentless ID card champion Tony Blair has, predictably, been on the warpath claiming vaccine passports are “inevitable” and the “only way” we can once again be free. I suppose this works in a world where “we” means only the people who have a vaccine and excludes everyone who is medically advised against it, and “free” means not free to choose what you put into your body. Thankfully, that’s not the topsy turvy world in which we live – yet.
But the current climate in which the revived ID debate is raging does feel topsy turvy against our British sensibilities. Our country survived the Twentieth Century because our forebearers gave up their lives for freedom. Today, some Brits are willing to give up their freedom for just about anything.
I had to pinch myself this week when the Foreign Secretary, sitting with the Union Jack hanging behind him, said a domestic vaccine passport for access to supermarkets was “under consideration”. The idea that we should all carry digital IDs with our health data and a vaccine inventory for inspection at the Sainsbury’s checkout is ludicrous. What kind of pointless bovine future does this Government envisage for our nation?
Astonishingly, this was no gaffe. Whilst Ministers are contradicting one another on these plans on a near daily basis, there are in fact at least 8 government-funded projects to develop digital vaccine and immunity passports.
This should have been a moment of national optimism. Instead, it is a moment of fear and division. Over 16 million people in the UK have received a coronavirus vaccine, protecting the vast majority of those most vulnerable to the virus, and the burst of Spring is just around the corner. But the future we are being offered bears more control, not less.
And it’s not only vaccine passports and “no jab no job” policies that threaten to constrict our future. The Government is also quietly developing a ‘digital identity framework’ so that, for example, we can use facial recognition apps connected to government-approved identity systems to verify our age at the local pub. It is also soon to introduce a Bill to require voters bear ID, despite a truly miniscule number of ballot box fraud cases compared with millions of Brits who have no photo ID. It is surely only a matter of time before all these ID demands converge into a unified national ID system of historic proportions.
Instead of racing into the embraces of renewed freedom, we are standing in the ruins of British values, staring down the barrel of what could be the biggest expansion of state surveillance ever seen in a democracy.
All of this is unfolding under a Prime Minister who, fifteen years ago, wrote in this paper that if someone in authority demanded he show an ID card he would “physically eat it in the presence of whatever emanation of the state has demanded that I produce it.”
What has changed? Because in the wake of his “war against coronavirus” we risk emerging like some sort of China-adjunct – a high-tech dystopia where where citizens flash their vaccine IDs and biological risk scores to buy a pint of milk, or government-approved facial recognition for a pint of beer.
The presumption of innocence, freedom and liberty is so mentally repressed in political elite, it has been almost entirely forgotten.
But I don’t think the ghost of liberalism has quite left the general public. Talking of things that are almost entirely forgotten, BBC Question Time this week was revealing. In what may be a programme first, there was almost unanimous agreement on the show that vaccine passports are a terrible idea.
Please, let us hold onto this barest of liberal instincts with all our might.
It was the stubborn liberal instincts of a 54 year old London dry-cleaner called Harry Willcock that helped dismantle the national ID system after the war. In 1950, a police officer stopped Mr Willcock on suspicion of speeding and demanded to see his ID card. The Londoner refused and, delightfully, told the officer “I am against this sort of thing”.
What could be more optimistic than the bloom of liberalism in the ruins of war? Mr Willcock’s seemingly small act of resistance inspired a movement – including the British Housewives’ League who, opposed to excess state control, took to Parliament to set fire to their ID cards. Their spirits dampened only by the rain, Beatrice Palmer was reportedly the only woman to successfully burn her registration card, lighting it in a coffee tin, whilst her fellow delegate Irene Lovelock had less luck using a frying pan.
Mr Willcock was prosecuted and the case reached the High Court in 1951, where he found sympathy from the judges. He was given an absolute discharge for his refusal to show his ID and had to trump up 30 shillings for speeding. In the judgment, Lord Chief Justice Goddard said the National Registration Act 1939 was “never passed for the purposes for which it is now apparently being used” and that using the law in this way “tends to turn law-abiding subjects into lawbreakers (…) and such action tends to make the people resentful of the acts of the police.”
Every word could be applied to the use of the Public Health Act 1984 today, under which anything from visiting our parents to political leafleting is currently deemed a criminal act. It would be the height of naivety to think covid vaccine IDs would not similarly exceed their purpose.
Yet here we are, telling authorities yet again “we are against this sort of thing”, almost 69 years to the day that Winston Churchill’s government scrapped war-time ID cards to “set the people free” in 1952. Churchill’s bonfire of state controls gave back the British public the freedom they had fought and died for. Now, we would like our freedom back too.
By for The Telegraph