Orwell was right. War is peace. Ignorance is strength. And, it seems, freedom is an app that stores your biographical and health data for the benefit of any bouncer who asks.
For months Boris Johnson had vaunted Monday 19th July as the UK’s ‘Freedom Day’. With the triumphalism redolent of Nigel Farage on a sunny June 2016 morning, BoJo repeatedly promised that yesterday would mark the “terminus” of restrictions for ever. We could all burn our facemasks and head out for a hug-tastic, non-socially-distanced all day bender to celebrate getting Covid done. Never again would the state restrict our lives.
When the date arrived, the Prime Minister spent Freedom Day in reluctant isolation and informed the nation that vaccine passports will soon be necessary to enter nightclubs and, in language that is alarmingly vague, “other venues where large numbers gather”.
It is probably fair to assume that this will be a digital thing, more than likely a smartphone app that contains at the very least an individual’s name, date of birth, address and vaccination dates. You could also reasonably assume, given the need to get large numbers of people into venues quickly, that some form of digital scan will be used, thereby also tracking a citizen’s location.
As Fraser Nelson argued this week, this represents a massive U-turn for Johnson who opposed Tony Blair’s ID cards so consistently. But even that scheme did not record health data amongst its list of 50 characteristics. The consequences of the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday represent a fundamental change in the relationship between Brits and the state. And whilst Nadhim Zahawi also made a statement to parliament, our elected representatives have yet to debate it. You don’t even need to prorogue parliament anymore. You can just ignore it.
Lack of debate aside, the proposal is not without its merits and could be part of a much more sensible approach to unlocking. A report by Mr Blair’s Institute for Global Change argues that such a scheme could reduce new cases and prevent up to 12,000 deaths. When asked about civil liberties, Mr Blair told Radio 4’s World at One he felt it was possible to exaggerate that argument.
Doesn’t he have a point? Isn’t it perhaps preferable to live, for a short while, in a country where an assessment of one’s immunity lets you into a festival, rather than one in which a last-minute ping from your phone keeps you out?
However, the soft-launch of vaccine passports wasn’t the problem with Monday 19th July. The main concern is that it was ever allowed to be trumpeted as ‘Freedom Day’ in the first place. This was classic Johnson, playing to the ERG-cum-Covid-Recovery-Group (what will they call themselves next?) with all the boosterism and optimism they elected him for, but ultimately having to face reality at the eleventh hour and level with rest of us.
He was at it again yesterday, telling us “I don’t want to be telling people to produce papers to go for a pint” minutes after announcing the plan to do just that.
The dual strategy of trying to do the right thing whilst simultaneously keeping the Tory right wing happy leads to the confusion we have seen over recent weeks. If you are going to have Covid passports, then why not have them from the start? As it is, clubs now have around ten weeks for their mostly unvaccinated young clientele to dance with each other (and sweat and snog) in complete freedom.
The young woman from Leeds who told the BBC “this is what life’s about” was both very right and very wrong. Life, most definitely, is not about being in a sticky-floored, chain-owned club, pumping out manufactured music at eardrum-bursting volumes while you knock back Jägerbombs. But it most definitely is about the spontaneity, the chance encounters, the unplanned interactions, friendships, and romances that such a night can offer.
It was with a tinge of envy (for their youth, not their location) that I watched the footage of those young revellers. I couldn’t help but feel happy for young people who, having faced unwarranted criticism throughout the pandemic, were finally able to get a night out.
But I also can’t help but wonder whether, with our Great Free Britain experiment, we might be throwing away much of what we have gained over the last 18 months. Ministers have been falling over themselves to tell us that the government’s plan to exit lockdown will be “cautious and irreversible”. It may yet prove to be neither.
It is time to have an honest and open conversation with the public – and proper debate in parliament – about what living with Covid really means for the next few years. It probably means more than just opening windows. If it means vaccine passports, very well. But let’s have a proper debate about them and be upfront about how they will work and for how long.
Will it be an annual thing this Freedom Day? I wonder what will be announced next year.