The Flawed Reasoning Behind Vaccine Passports

19 June 2021

Poor reasoning about vaccine passports

Like many Lockdown Sceptics readers, I’m disturbing by consistent patterns of poor reasoning about almost everything to do with lockdowns, pandemics, and COVID-19. By now, we should expect reasoning errors, moralisation of discourse, questionable use of evidence, and so on, and look out for them when new things come up. A case in point are vaccine passports. Here are three examples: questionable claims about public support, wilful dismissal of reasonable worries, and short-termist thinking.

False dilemmas

A false dilemma is a situation where a person is given a limited number of options that are wrongly presented as being either mutually exclusive or the only options. Here’s an example:

Arriving home one night, my housemate, finding we’ve no food in the house, says, “We’ll have to get a takeaway or go hungry.” Here we have a false dilemma: there are alternative courses of action – going shopping, embracing freeganism, asking friends to feed us.

Debates about vaccine passports often involve people experiencing a false dilemma. Consider a professor at the Harvard Law School for whom the alternative to a vaccine passport system is “stay at your home, or don’t come to college, or don’t come to the employer at all”. For those who want to do such extravagant things as go out, continue one’s education, or go to work to earn a wage, there may seem to be no acceptable alternative.

Many people, it seems, see the debate as one between accepting vaccine passports or facing a punishing future of restrictions, social disruption and isolation, and all their social and economic harms – ones that disproportionality impact ethnic and racial minorities. Given just those two options, vaccine passports will doubtless seem the lesser of two evils. But those aren’t the only option: a false dilemma is imposed by obscuring alternative possibilities. Israel, for one, recently announced the early closure of its Green Card system, barely five months after introducing it, due to encouraging case data and vaccine uptake rates. One obvious alternative is therefore to study up-to-date data on cases, hospitalisations, and deaths and weigh these against vaccination rates and plausible collective immunity levels.

We’re often susceptible to false dilemmas: many of us tend to stick to the options given to us. It also takes expertise, research, and exercises of the imagination to identify alternatives. Moreover, many prefer simplified decision-making situations in which there’s a limited set of simple alternatives. Sometimes, artificially simplified options are acceptable: not all false dilemmas concern important topics (what shall I do tonight – watch Netflix or have a bath?). But vaccine passports raise important issues, so we must take more than the usual amounts of care when considering them. If there are other ways to ‘return to normal’, then vaccine passports are not the only way and perhaps not the best way.

A good place to spot the distorting influence of false dilemmas are recent reports of high levels of public support for some form of vaccine passport for different sorts of activities. A March 2021 Ipsos MORI poll reported significant support for vaccine passports as a way out of lockdown. But care is needed in interpreting this data: the majority of respondents will be lockdown-fatigued people suffering the effects of over 12 months of fear, loss, and uncertainty, not to mention an amplified anxiety that Laura Dodsworth has dubbed “weaponised fear”. As medics and social liberty campaigners warn, many Britons are so anxious and impoverished that in their desperate, distressed state they would consent to almost anything if it promised a return to normality. Put in human and social context, then, statements of support for vaccine passports are better understood as ‘adaptive preferences’, ones adopted in ways that tend to make them unreliable in reflecting one’s actual attitudes. (Classic examples involve women who choose to remain in abusive relationships because their prospects outside them are even worse.)

Such concerns about preferences for vaccine passports voiced under acute conditions of distress, desperation, and denial are ignored by the authors of a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They insist that evaluations of vaccine passports should not be assessed against the “baseline of normalcy” – of the freedom of movement and activity we enjoyed prior to the pandemic. Instead, we ought to compare a world of vaccine passports against a world of ongoing stringent social restrictions of uncertain duration.

As commentators pointed out, desperate people can be coerced into trading away any goods or surrendering any values – liberty, medical confidentiality, personal dignity. Granted, they may later come to regret their choice, but at that point it’s usually hard to undo it.

What we see in such cases is a worrying set of bad reasoning habits. These include presenting urgent decisions about complex topics as false dilemmas, appraising people’s stated preferences in isolation from the circumstances under which they were formed, and a peremptory bracketing of the standards, norms, and values provided by the prior baseline of normal human life.

Necessity and efficacy

When contemplating policies and systems that would significantly alter the everyday conduct of life, we should investigate whether they are necessary and whether they are effective. This should not be especially controversial, especially if the systems in question involve vast sums of public money, severe impacts on our life and liberties, disproportionate effects on certain social groups – as is the case with vaccine passports. Granted, different issues are salient for different commentators. The Socialist Worker fears that vaccine passports will increase racial disparities, the Daily Telegraph thunders about “a betrayal of British values”, while the Liberal Democrats hedge their bets by worrying that vaccine passports are “anti-freedom and anti-business”.

Answering the questions of whether vaccine passports are necessary and effective is complicated and involves so many issues that even a survey of them descends into telegrammatic reportage. There are problems of implementation, most obviously that of building an appropriate and robust digital infrastructure, establishing effective security and privacy systems, and assuaging critics alarmed by discouraging early assessments and recent experiences. There are worries about the risks of cronyism and corruption that have marked, for instance, Test and Trace and the massive transfers of public money to politically connected companies all throughout the pandemic as a blatant means of stealth privatisation of the NHS. There are the massive financial costs of implementing a vaccine passport system, especially if it involves incentives to encourage vaccine uptake. In the U.S., it’s been seriously proposed that $275 billion dollars be spent paying Americans to get vaccinated: “a bargain”, apparently, despite the possibility that such vast sums of money could be better spent on other policies. Consider, too, well-established worries that the use of financial incentivisation tends to erode altruistic motivations (as was the experience with paid blood donations in the U.S.).

Even assuming these implementation issues can be overcome, there remain worries about coercion. Consider current “No Jab, No Job” rhetoric, which, if translated into employer practice, can empower bad behaviour by bosses and violate human rights, like the right to bodily autonomy. Concerns about coercion are most vivid for the socially and economically vulnerable: those who are poor, who have lost their jobs, the black workers who are more likely to be fired, those who have run through their savings, or live in fear of eviction, or suffer economic and food insecurity. Even if none of these apply in your case, there remains a well-established moral principle that medical treatments should not be coerced.

A second set of issues are those caused by the operation of a vaccine passport system. These include worries that vaccine passports encourage stigmatisation, discrimination and social exclusion; that they dampen economic and social activity in a country that desperately needs it; and that, by their nature, they will expand state surveillance systems — what critics have dubbed “policing for immunity”, a disturbing prospect when our state institutions are already vastly corrupted by racist biases. Worse, there’s the risk of vaccine passports amplifying very familiar stereotypes associating foreigners and disease (recall the xenophobic abuse of east Asian people due to inflamed fears about the “Chinese virus”).

Again, some people will be sanguine about these risks, often because they are unlikely to be affected by them. Others are confident that decent solutions will be found. Others just don’t care about the issues. (Consider, as an analogy, the placid enthusiasm among many people for “voter identification laws” that suppress voters along lines clearly defined by racial identity and socioeconomic class.) But self-assured confidence can be dangerous, if not properly counterbalanced by understanding of risks, realities, and limitations.

An obvious reply from enthusiasts for vaccine passports is to offer what many regard as the best argument: we need a vaccine passport system to protect public health against the ongoing COVID-19 threat. The problem with this is that the efficacy of any such system is called in question by the enormous range of complex epidemiological variables. There are several different vaccines in use with others being trialled. They offer different degrees of protection against different variants. The strength and duration of the protection is uncertain and sensitive to various factors. There is further variation among individual immune responses – based on, for instance, the number of ‘jabs’ one has had and the particular vaccine, not to mention the complicating effects of age, lifestyle, medical history, genetic factors, and much else. Given these multiple variables, the idea of a workable vaccine passport that reduces one’s immune status to a tick is unrealistic – something noted by the World Health Organisation.

Perhaps a more nuanced passport vaccine system could be imagined. Maybe our little NHS app gets checked at the pub entrance and reads “Likely immunity estimated at 45.67 – 66.8%. Estimate depends on specific variants and contingent conditions”, then the publican decides, on the spot, whether to admit us or not. Clearly, though, that’s an absurd scenario, but is it absurd enough to make people stop and think?

Short-term solutions and long-term losses

I want to note a final type of problematic thinking we see in debates about vaccine passports: a tendency to assess proposed policies in terms of potential short-term advantages without attending to their potential long-term costs and risks. Short-termism is very common and plays into our general preference for immediate gratification over long-term benefits that are less apparent and so less desirable. Sometimes, indulging our short-termist tendencies is not especially worrisome. In the case of vaccine passports, though, the issues and implications demand we take a longer-term view.

A clear case are worries about so-called ‘mission creep’, the tendency of projects and missions to gradually expand beyond their original scope or goals in a ratcheting effect that’s often very difficult to reverse. In the case of vaccine passports, this worry has been raised by, among others, Privacy International. We’ve seen mission creep repeatedly throughout the pandemic in cases where Government ministers have grown accustomed to their new powers and display reluctance to surrender them. The drivers of mission creep are all-too-familiar – the pleasures of possessing enhanced political powers, exemption from moderating scrutiny, the desire to see how far one can push things and what one can get away with, the expanded prospects for corruption and cronyism, and so on.

Powers, once granted, are hard to rescind and policies introduced in emergency situations often tend to persist long beyond the conditions that justified their introduction. In Milton Friedman’s apt aphorism, there’s nothing as permanent as a temporary government programme. When considering vaccine passports, we should be attentive not only to their short-term costs and benefits but also potential long-term effects. What starts as a COVID-19 vaccine passport may, much later, be recognised as a key step in developments we severely regret, especially if, as a surveillance technology expert warns, in an aphorism of his own, entrenchment is an iron law of surveillance technology.

A tendency towards short-termism is natural enough, since what seems immediate is often more tangible and what is distant seems less imperative. Moreover, if the current state of things is depressing and repressive, the prospect of even slight improvement in our short-term prospects is likely to be welcomed. In such cases, the temptation to ignore longer-term considerations can be compelling. A sustaining dream of a back-to-normal summer of pints in the pub at the putatively minimal cost of ‘scanning in’ at the door can be enticing. But what’s tempting isn’t always sensible and things we welcome in the short-term are often later regretted. When considering vaccine passports, we need to consider not only whether the summer might be ‘back to normal’, but also whether the route we took to get there isn’t a path to something darker.

The general worry underling all these concerns is that debates about the necessity and efficacy of a vaccine passport must engage with a complex range of issues that are difficult and uncertain and salient in different ways for different groups. We should debate these risks and worries. But this means being alert to ways that our thinking becomes distorted, whether by short-termism and false dilemmas or a false but comfortingly simplified sense that “There Is No Alternative”. After all, nothing’s more likely to discourage good thinking than a sense that there is no point in thinking at all, since there’s no alternative.

The author is a lecturer at a Russell Group university.