The vexed question of domestic covid immunity passports remains in the balance. The general tone and drift of the government is that they are going to happen. Yesterday’s ID card munching journalist is today’s prime minister, ordering passport trials to go ahead. A recent Roadmap Review published by the government noted that covid immunity passports are ‘likely to become a feature of our lives until the threat from the pandemic recedes’, and that they ‘could have an important role to play…as a temporary measure’. At the same time, retailers and the hospitality sector have recoiled against the idea, even though the majority of their customers want them. Rather late in the day, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has come out with a mealy mouthed ‘can have a role, but important to strike the right balance’ type statement that merely adds more mud to the already turbid waters. A while back, the Royal Society produced a similar sitting on the fence report. On twitter, covid immunity passport nuts queue up to post ‘TBH, I don’t really want to eat in the same places as anti vaccine loons’ and ‘the only people refusing [vaccines] are idiots, if two-tier society means less idiots around me I’m fine with that’. Truly, we are already a nation divided — and about to be ruled.
“Model individuals will be commended in accordance with regulations, and extensive publicity will be conducted through the news media to create a trustworthy and glorious public opinion atmosphere.”State Council of the People’s Republic of China (2014)Heartening as it is to hear some political opposition to covid passports, even if some of the opponents are a mixed bag of chancers and free-loaders, it still seems — assuming the polls are right — the majority of the Britons favour the introduction of covid passports for a wide range of broadly defined social activities. Expressed opposition, on the other hand, is low, never more than one in four of those polled. If the public gets what it wants, which seems likely, given the Tories’ penchant for policy that pushes on open doors, then Franklin’s ‘Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety’ will have finally achieved in full its true modern meaning.
The deadline for submitting evidence to the covid immunity passports review is fast approaching. Responses must be filed by 11:45pm on 29 March 2021. Don’t be put off by the formal language of a ‘call for evidence to inform the review into COVID-status certification’, this is also an ‘open consultation’. The government says it is keen to ‘ensure that the [review] recommendations reflect a broad range of interests and concerns’ and that it will ‘welcome views from all respondents’. So if you have a view on covid passports, email it to email@example.com. For good measure, you might also send a copy of the email to your MP. You can find his or her email address here.
If you asked a group of people whether making wearing front seat belts in cars compulsory helped save lives, many would answer in the affirmative. Ask how they know the answer, and many will say some variant of obvs innit: it’s obvious, it stands to reason, it’s common sense. The law, when it came in, in January 1983, was hugely controversial, but the controversy wasn’t about effectiveness, it was about liberty. It was the first time the government had passed a law that sooner or later would affect just about everyone, requiring them to do something not to protect others, but to protect themselves. Since we were at the time, and still are for matter, free to drink ourselves to death, or smoke ourselves to death, it was argued we should also be free to smash ourselves to death. The state had no business interfering in personal decisions; doing so marked the beginning of the nanny state, from which there would be no turning back. Promoters of the law claimed that up to a thousand lives be saved every year, and there would be important secondary benefits, including reduced demand on the NHS.
Orwell’s boot stamping on a human face — forever — might be apt for the later stages of authoritarianism, but it isn’t for the earlier stages, when Elliot’s not with a bang but a whimper fits better. If we put aside revolution and invasion, nations don’t convulse into authoritarianism, the authorities start with baby steps, which then get bolder as time goes by, until in time they become a march. It is Martin Niemöller’s first they came for the communists, then they came for the incurables. Unpopular groups are marginalised and criminalised. Enabling acts, acts which enable other laws to be made without parliamentary scrutiny, are used to ram through decrees even when, as is often the case, the party in government has a working majority. And then, before long, steps are taken to provide the means to silence those who oppose the government.
Watching the first spell-binding episode of Adam Curtis’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head, Dr No was repeatedly struck by the revelation that modern humans are giant biped ants. We live in colonies, ruled over preposterous queens — Jiang Qing, Mao’s fourth wife, and key player in the China’s Cultural Revolution, got a lot of air time in the first episode — and organise ourselves by the division of labour. We have workers (the likes of Dr No, and most of you), soldiers (our NHS frontline heroes) and drones (politicians and the mainstream media). Colonies readily attack other colonies, be it the maskers attacking the anti-maskers, or the lockdown fanatics attacking the lockdown sceptics. Like ants, we swarm, and frankly, the only discernable difference that Dr No could make out between a swarm of ants and a swarm of humans is that the ants know exactly where they are going, while the humans don’t have a clue.
“When someone is honestly 55% right, that’s very good and there’s no use wrangling. And if someone is 60% right, it’s wonderful, it’s great luck, and let him thank God. But what’s to be said about 75% right? Wise people say this is suspicious. Well, and what about 100% right? Whoever says he’s 100% right is a fanatic, a thug, and the worst kind of rascal.” An Old Jew of Galicia, quoted by Czeslaw Milosz in The Captive Mind (1953)
Perhaps the most putrid specialty in a profession that has more than its fair share of stinkers is public health medicine. A natural bunker for malfunctioning medical Mussolinis and failed physician Pinochets, public health medicine has evolved an alien and grandiose medical culture in which they who practice it are above mere patients. Instead, they have populations. Just as Mussolini engineered a society in which the trains ran on time, so public health physicians would have it that the population abstains from fags fizz and fornication, downs its five fruit and veg a day, and, armed with a faecal occult blood testing kit in its hands, opens its bowels on time. Their vision, like their ideological forebears, the Stalinists and the Nazis, is one of the nation state as a boot camp for health, a vast breeding ground for a pure population free of disease, infirmity and disability, all watched over by health marshals wearing caps emblazoned with the rallying yet blinding cry, Health for All, and All for Health! What could possibly go wrong?
One of the things that has intrigued Dr No with increasing trigue during the covid pandemic has been the mechanics of how a state becomes at first authoritarian, and then totalitarian. He is not after some waffling account of putative prose impenetrable by man on ethno-hegemonic constructs pertaining to a pandemic dialectric, but rather a sort of physical mechanics, an e = mc2, or rather t = mc2, where, for instance, t = totalitarianism, m = the mob and c = something that is squared to get the answer. What he is particularly interested in is the tipping point, the point at which the gradient on the slippery slope becomes sufficient for gravity to take over, and nudges are no longer required; or, in quantum terms, the point at which we are sucked unwittingly through a putative quantum key hole all too penetrable by man into Schrödinger’s covid cage, where Geiger’s dissident counter crackles over a vial of totalitarian poison.