September 13, 2021 - 10:30am

Health secretary Sajid Javid announced yesterday that the much-debated plan to introduce vaccine passports for nightclubs and other venues at the end of September was not going ahead.

Appearing on the Andrew Marr Show, Javid insisted that while the government ‘was right to look at it’ and the plan would be kept ‘in reserve’ he was pleased to say the passports would not be implemented as previously announced, adding that it was ‘a huge intrusion into people’s lives’ and ‘most people instinctively don’t like the idea’.

Javid is widely known as a fan of Ayn Rand’s brand of radical individualism, reportedly once telling Parliament’s Crossbench Film Society that he wooed his future wife by reading her passages from The Fountainhead. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to find him resistant to implementing as national policy a requirement to show medical paperwork in order to do something as everyday as going clubbing.

This is all the more so when growing evidence indicates that vaccination doesn’t in fact put a stop to infection, or even transmission of the virus — it mainly reduces the severity of symptoms. If the aim is not eliminating Covid but simply ensuring healthcare systems aren’t overloaded, then provided vaccine uptake is good (as is the case in England, where 89% of over-16s have now had at least one dose) there’s no need to constrain anyone’s movement.

So this announcement feels like a breakthrough of common sense amid a slew of countries announcing vaccine passport policies. But we should read Javid’s invocation of Randian personal freedom cautiously.

Firstly, Javid reiterated that the measure was held in reserve for future vaccine response efforts, a statement underlined by no. 10 today. Secondly, the government is suspiciously quiet on any willingness to rescind the overall Coronavirus Act. This Act is the enabling legislation for the whole raft of emergency Covid management measures, and has no ‘sunset clause’.

According to the FT, though, a government spokesperson said last week that “The British public would expect us to retain these powers in case they are needed through the winter.” One might observe that, absent substantial polling, “would” is doing some heavy lifting in that sentence. In any case, the longer we live with its ‘emergency’ measures, the more normal they will become — and perhaps the less enthusiastic our governing betters will be about having those powers prised from their guiding hands.

Given this, we might read Javid’s u-turn on a vaccine passport measure that’s both overtly draconian and of little practical use as less a victory for substantive individual freedom and more a concession to its appearance. A debate over whether unvaccinated twenty-somethings should be free to lick each other in nightclubs is of far less consequence than one over the continued presence of the Coronavirus Act on the statute book.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.