Vaccine Passports are the way to go for the EU

Tom Spencer // 29 March 2021

Vaccine passports are all the rage right now in the EU. One of the largest consequences of the pandemic has been significant restrictions to free movement. The EU’s internal open borders are one of its most basic freedoms and should only be restricted where it is absolutely necessary to do so. Vaccine passports present an excellent way to restore this liberty.

At present those who are unvaccinated pose a risk in that they may spread the virus to areas currently safe forcing places to return to lockdowns. However, those fortunate enough to have a jab are safe, and therefore there’s no legitimate reason to prevent them from travelling. Vaccine passports present a way of temporarily allowing those who have had a vaccine to have freedom of movement whilst it’s still unsafe for the unvaccinated to travel. This would be an excellent way for freedom to return to Europe in a way that does not risk the lives of the vulnerable. Indeed, the European Commission seems to agree; Ursula Von der Leyen has promised to introduce legislative proposals for them this month. So why are so many people against it?

The strongest argument against these passports is an appeal to fairness. Critics, like Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, argue that such a move would be divisive as it would create two classes of citizens. Why should some citizens be afforded certain rights that are not afforded to all? To Iohannis, it seems unfair to discriminate against individuals based on their decisions about their bodies. This argument is particularly convincing to many younger people because of how vaccinations are allocated. Given most countries allow older people to receive vaccines before the young, then it may appear ageist to provide vaccine passports initially just to the elderly.

However, the alternative is that no one is able to travel. If given a choice between a glass half full and an empty glass, then obviously we should take the half full. This is particularly important when having an empty glass has such significant economic consequences. In 2020 the EU experienced over a billion fewer arrivals putting as many as 120 million jobs at risk. If we can find a way to restore some movement in a way that does not risk anyone’s health, then that should be pursued.

One fear that liberals will be able to sympathise with is whether vaccine passports will be truly time limited. Indeed, Milton Friedman famously explained that “nothing is so  permanent as a temporary Government programme“. This runs especially true for passports which were only initially introduced as a temporary wartime measure in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Denmark and Switzerland. Clearly, keeping vaccine passports eternally would be a violation of liberty, and it is understandable why many are squeamish about their introduction based on their knowledge of previous temporary government programmes.

However, this can easily be addressed. The EU should ensure a strict time limit, where the scheme will end once that date has been reached. When the total number of cases, the R rate, or any other significant metric determined by epidemiologists reaches the desired number, then the existence of vaccine passport will be difficult to justify. At this point, where the virus is under control with low cases and deaths, then the EU must reverse the policy to restore freedom of movement to all citizens.

Naturally this will come with difficulties – like any Government scheme does – but the technology already exists to roll this out rapidly. The International Air Transport Association has launched a COVID-19 travel pass that would allow freedom of movement to be restored to the vaccinated. This takes the form of a mobile app (with a paper-based alternative) verifying that an individual is fully inoculated. The launch for this is scheduled for March 2021 and shows just how easily we can adapt to restore free movement.

Overall, the best way of maximising freedom and helping to restart international travel in a way that does not damage public health is through a vaccine passport. Although the passports should be abandoned when the threat of COVID-19 is mitigated, in the short-run this presents an effective mechanism for allowing freedom of movement to return – and supporting industries reliant on tourism. The EU must not let the envy of those not lucky enough to be inoculated prevent them from pursuing what is manifestly a good policy.

EPICENTER publications and contributions from our member think tanks are designed to promote the discussion of economic issues and the role of markets in solving economic and social problems. As with all EPICENTER publications, the views expressed here are those of the author and not EPICENTER or its member think tanks (which have no corporate view).


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