Simon Rushton By: Simon Rushton
Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations
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01 Apr 2020 : Immunity passports

Something doesn’t feel right to me about the ‘immunity passports’ idea. (For those who haven’t seen it, it is the idea that those who have recovered from COVID-19 and are – at least in theory – immune could have some kind of document that they would be provided with after passing an antibody test. This would allow them to be exempted from the lockdown rules so they could help start the process of society returning to normal).

I don’t know what form these ‘passports’ would take. An actual paper document? A badge? A wristband?  Whatever it would be, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it feels like it could be a very tricky thing indeed to get right.

There are obvious practical issues. It would be much more difficult to monitor compliance with the social distancing rules if they didn't apply equally to everyone. There would be, I suppose, a risk of the immune unwittingly carrying the disease to the previously uninfected. There would be workplace equity issues, if some were required to return to work as normal while others continued working from home (or remained furloughed). Surely some would deliberately seek to get infected so they could qualify for a passport and go to the pub? We could go on and on. The unintended consequences of rolling out such a plan could be huge.

But it's not just about the practicalities. Part of my unease, I think, is a queasiness about two-tier societies. The whole business of giving certain groups special identifying badges and papers has too many historical echoes. I also don’t know how those two groups would relate to one another. Are immunity passport-holders going to be the real-life Morlocks, sent out to work to support the passportless Eloi and their antiquated immune systems? Or will the immunity passport-holders be like a breed of superhumans, free to bestride the city streets while the rest of us cower indoors?

Without such a plan, though, how will the lockdown ever be lifted? It’s hard to see another way out in the short term.  Sometimes, it’s nice not to be a policymaker who has to actually decide these issues in real life…

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