Last Thursday, the Prime Minster announced that the NHS Covid Pass would become mandatory for entry into nightclubs and other venues “where large crowds gather”. While the timing of this announcement seems to be motivated more by politics than anything else, does the measure itself actually make sense? I would argue: no.
The NHS Covid Pass is available to those who meet any of the following three conditions. One, you’ve received two or more vaccine doses. Two, you’ve tested positive in the past six months and have finished self-isolating. And three, you’ve tested negative in the past 48 hours.
So, the passes do at least recognise natural immunity, which is condition number two. But will requiring them have any impact on serious illness and death (which is after all what really matters)? It seems unlikely.
Requiring passes certainly can’t guarantee zero transmission at large events, since we know that both vaccinated and previously infected people can transmit the virus.
The only measure that would come close to achieving zero transmission is requiring everyone – regardless of vaccination or natural immunity – to present a negative test upon entry. However, this measure would still be vulnerable to false negatives, or persons who became infected shortly after testing negative.
If you’re a vulnerable person deciding whether or not to attend a large event, the fact that Covid passes are mandatory is no guarantee whatsoever that you won’t catch Covid. (As I’ve argued before, vaccine passports could have the unintended consequence of leading vulnerable people to engage in more risky behaviour.)
In principle, requiring passes could lower the level of transmission at large events. But any effect is likely to be extremely small.
That’s because most people were vaccinated several months ago, so at this point won’t be much less likely to transmit the virus than those who aren’t unvaccinated. (They might even be more likely to transmit it.) Among the vaccinated, only those who’ve had three doses will have somewhat more protection against infection.
On top of that, the number of people who’d be turned away without a negative test – i.e., unvaccinated people who haven’t been infected in the last six months – must be pretty small, especially when you consider how many young people caught the virus over the summer. Which raises the question: what’s the point?
Finally, there’s the issue of why we should even care about the total number of infections. Covid isn’t going anywhere, which means most of us are going to catch it sooner or later – regardless of whether we’re vaccinated. (I am, in case you’re interested.)
Our goal should be protecting vulnerable people as the virus becomes endemic. It’s unclear how slowing transmission in nightclubs makes any real contribution to that goal.