Covid and authoritarianism: were Liberal Democrats wrong-footed over Covid passports?

Civil liberties concerns over Covid Passports are misplaced — and opposing them risks fuelling the anxiety that is creating the space for increasingly authoritarian government behaviour

I’m hearing genuine concern about the increasing authoritarianism of the Johnson government and more complicated concerns about civil liberties and Covid regulations — particularly around the idea of Covid passports. But these are profoundly different. Joining them together is a bad idea, and plays into the government’s hands.

Creeping authoritarianism

The Tories thought nothing of illegally proroguing parliament. They responded to losing in the Supreme Court with a threat to stop “leftie lawyers” challenging the government. Proposals for compulsory voter identification and redrawing constituency boundaries are likely to help them at the next election, and they are alarmingly-happy to use “Henry VIII powers” to sideline parliament in facing the legislative consequences of Brexit. And it’s probably best not to mention the recent Conservative Party conference.

These are problems, and we should be concerned. But they are not about Covid.

A friend who travels frequently between the UK and Belgium makes a sharp contrast. In Belgium the messaging around Covid has been “this is what the doctors advise…” In the UK it’s been “obey the government and you will be fine” (even when the government ignores the advice of SAGE). Praise of obedience sounds horribly authoritarian.

But obeying the government isn’t about Covid.

People accept authoritarianism if it makes them feel safer. A government that stirs up people’s anxieties, ducks responsibility and presents itself as the answer has a way to hang on to power.

The medical piece

No vaccine is 100% effective. There is a problem with newer and more infectious variants. The more people who ill, the faster it mutates and the greater the risk of it becoming more serious.

Vaccination is about controlling the spread of a disease. It’s not just about individual risk: I get vaccinated to protect others as well as myself.

We have laws against drink driving which stop people being a danger to others and to themselves. We don’t honour the “opinions” of those who think they are safe to drink and drive. Is it so different to ask people also to be responsible and get vaccinated?

Anxiety over Covid

The problem is that Covid stirs up a huge range of anxieties. Vaccination offers protection against the illness, but not those anxieties.

A wise government would recognise this, encourage vaccination, and address what’s worrying people.

Instead, we have the Johnson government. Their authoritarian tendency has exploited the anxieties revealed in support for Brexit, and it is being compounded by the added anxieties over Covid.

Excluded groups

Vaccine uptake hasn’t been even. I am particularly concerned about groups who were already marginalised — notably some of the minority ethnic groups — who’ve been receptive to ill-founded worries over the vaccine and now face being disproportionately affected by Covid.

Vaccine passports

It’s easy to dismiss these as “identity cards by another name”, forgetting that the same could be said about driving licenses. Requiring proof of vaccination is a way to avoid places like nightclubs and aeroplanes being super-spreaders, and to encourage people to get vaccinated.

If we wait too long, people will get used to the idea of certain minorities being badly affected by Covid (as AIDS was once seen as the “gay plague”) and read vaccine passports as proof that someone isn’t in one of those groups. Right now, there’s still time for vaccine passports to be introduced and understood as meaning just that someone has been vaccinated.

Unwise resistance

Resisting authoritarianism by resisting what makes medical sense over Covid is counter-productive. It increases the suffering and from Covid and the anxiety that stirs up — fuelling the authoritarianism.

What we need is science-based pragmatism over Covid, and a well-articulated opposition to the direction in which the government is moving.

This article originally appeared on Liberal Democrat Voice, 14 October 2021

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