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Opinion

Mask mandates and vaccine passports are a performance, a taking of the knee to a warped health-and-safety morality

The illiberal actions of Western nations over Covid are as much about a worrying shift in politics as it is about ‘the science’. Some very basic freedoms that we have traditionally enjoyed are in grave danger.

In America, Joe Biden is putting pressure on workers to get the vaccine. Without proof that you do not have Covid, or evidence of vaccination, you will no longer be able to enter a workplace that has more than 100 staff. This policy will affect two-thirds of the workforce – around 100 million people.

While many liberals in America have understandably reacted with outrage at changes to abortion regulations in places such as Texas, the idea of bodily autonomy as a basic human right, a right that should apply to vaccinations, barely gets a mention.

In France, vaccine passports have been introduced in cultural and leisure venues – cinemas and museums, as well as bars, restaurants, cafés, trains… Basically anywhere and everywhere you go in that country, you will be expected to show your papers.

In England, thus far, vaccine passports have been ruled out. However, in Scotland, the governing Scottish National Party (SNP) have once again shown that it is always prepared to take authoritarian measures one step further than their English counterparts by introducing passports for major venues.

Suggesting a puritanical dimension to this policy, not only are outdoor venues of 10,000 people and indoor venues of 500 being targeted, but all “sexual entertainment venues” will need evidence of vaccination. 

Despite the fact that 84% of over-18s have had both jabs, the policy in Scotland is being introduced, in part, and arguably in large part, to put pressure on younger people to get a vaccination for a virus that has little or no effect on them.

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A variety of concerns have been raised about the use of passports; some argue there is a “lack of detail” in these plans. Many others have talked about the impact this could have on businesses, especially night-time businesses. Nightclubs, most frequented by the young, are clearly a major target for the SNP.

This concern about business and the lack of details are legitimate, but they should be seen as secondary – indeed, barely worth a mention in comparison to the principle of people’s freedom to choose whether they want to be vaccinated or not. 

People are not literally being forced to take the vaccine, but there is clear and intended pressure to make young people, in particular, be administered the vaccine against their will. In a free society that respects the autonomy of individuals, this is totally unacceptable. 

To his credit, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Alex Cole-Hamilton, has stated that his party is “fundamentally opposed to the plan”, which will take us on a “disturbing and illiberal course”. But this argument, or even a discussion about basic liberal freedoms is thin on the ground.

The illogical nature of the passport is made even worse by the fact that, while being vaccinated has some impact on the spread of the disease, many who have received the jab will both catch the virus and pass it on. In some respects, it is clear that the move to vaccine passports is as much about the illiberal shift in politics as it is about “the science”.  

We see this already with the bizarre mask-wearing carry-on in pubs and restaurants that continues to take place in Scotland, but not in England. Stand up, mask on, sit down, mask off. In Scottish universities, staff and students walk the corridors with masks on and take them off in class. Mask-wearing appears to be as much a performance – a taking of the knee to a warped health-and-safety morality – as it is about real risks and medical evidence.

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The mask madness was demonstrated in all its comical glory at a wedding I attended recently, with guests free to dance, drink, eat and mingle for the entire day, except when the state official was present for the ceremony itself: The registrar was understandably apologetic as she asked people to wear a mask. Few complied. 

The growing illiberal nature of politics in the UK is not specific to Scotland, of course, indeed it was New Labour, under Tony Blair, who really started the ball rolling with the development of “nudge” politics and slogans such as “freedom from fear”. 

Nudge policies, or what some oxymorons call “libertarian paternalism”, are used to nudge us to behave, and have become part of the modern elitist armoury of expert initiatives – there to encourage us all to make the “correct decisions” in our lives. 

The idea of “freedom from fear” helped to transform the very meaning of freedom, to turn it on its head to mean freedom from other people, rather than freedom from the power of the state – a “freedom” based on ever more policing and the regulation of public life. 

The SNP, of course, has managed to turn paternalism into an art form, and now we face having a two-tiered society based on the abandonment of a basic liberal principle of bodily autonomy – one where we will have to carry our health-and-safety papers when we go out at night. 

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Unfortunately, I suspect the anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists will feel their arguments are strengthened by this authoritarian move – something that could have repercussions for how people think about all vaccines in the future. 

The approach to dealing with Covid has been illiberal in many countries from the outset. Little trust has been granted to the public in engaging with the problems we face. The vaccine passport, in this respect, is a logical outcome of a state system that increasingly treats us as lab rats to be nudged, rather than citizens to trust and engage.

In the UK, there is already a fall in vaccinations for meningitis and septicaemia, and also a drop, although a relatively small one, in the take-up of the measles-mumps-rubella (known as MMR) jab. 

I suspect these falls relate not only to general ‘vaccination fatigue’, but also to the reaction by some to the political and moral nature of the Covid discussion and an objection to the more authoritarian developments that have sullied and changed the way that some people think about such jabs. 

We need to depoliticise the vaccine programme. We need to ensure that any programme is based solely on a balanced medical and scientific judgement. We also need to take individuals more seriously and treat them with the respect they deserve, and that means convincing people about the benefits of vaccinations – not forcing them to get them. 

For vaccinations to be successful in a free society, we need to win the medical argument for them.

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