Does the UK need COVID passports?

With 90% of the population having had at least one jab, do we still need to introduce vaccination passports?
23 November 2021

Interview with 

David Matthews, University of Bristol


A cartoon of the Earth as a coronavirus particle.


Covid cases across the European continent are surging to the extent that some countries are resorting again to drastic measures to control outbreaks. The Netherlands has imposed new lockdown restrictions; in Ireland curfews on pubs, clubs and restaurants have been reintroduced; and in Austria, Covid vaccines will be made mandatory. So how are we faring here in the UK, and should we be following suit, or should we hold our nerve? David Matthews, a virologist at the University of Bristol, spoke with Chris Smith…

David - Currently, I think we're in a good place. I'm very optimistic. We have a highly vaccinated population and coupled with that, we've had quite a lot of spread which acts as a booster to people who are vaccinated. And then of course, we've got the booster program as well, which will boost immunity of people who've not been infected but have been vaccinated. So I am optimistic. We're starting to see a decline in cases and deaths slowly. So I do think we are hopefully turning the corner.

Chris - Well I share that optimism, but I'm slightly confused by the headlines that we're being assailed by, because if you look at the vaccine uptake rates, we're at nearly 90% of the population over 12 have had at least one dose of vaccine now. So have we really got much ground to gain still by continuing to push on the vaccine front? Do you think that the 10% are actually going to go across the line here?

David - I don't think they're going to go across the line without a lot of help from everybody else. I don't know why that 10% are resisting, but I think we need to spend a lot more time working on that problem and persuading those people of the benefits of the vaccination and helping them to understand, or maybe backtrack from earlier positions they've taken and now feel slightly awkward about changing their minds. We need to work on that because if we were to do that, you would basically half the number of people in hospital and on mechanical ventilation beds in a single go if everybody in the adult population was vaccinated, and that would be a huge gain just by persuading the last 10% who for whatever reason haven't taken the backseat so far.

Chris - Is that the statistic then, that half of the cases we're seeing needing the most help in hospital at the moment are unvaccinated?

David - Almost. So I think the last time I checked, it was something like two thirds of people on mechanical ventilation beds needing additional help in hospital are unvaccinated. If you're vaccinated that reduces the chance of you ending up in that situation by about 80-90%. So a very rough top-of-your head calculation tells you that that effectively leads to a halving of the numbers. We'd go from 1,000 people a day on mechanical ventilation beds to 500. And that would obviously mean that we'd be much, much further away from the prospects of lockdown.

Chris - What's your take on the fact that Northern Ireland is moving towards introducing some kind of vaccine passport system? Is this vaccine passport system actually worth pursuing?

David - I think a vaccine passport, if it helps to persuade people to get the vaccine, then it's a good thing. We are in uncharted territory. I would rather we persuade people rather than compel them, but I do see the merits in compelling people, I really do. The numbers, as we said earlier, they speak for themselves. Two-thirds of people in the hospital in serious conditions right now were unvaccinated. And the NHS, as we know, has much, much better things to do with its time than spend time treating people who turn down a free, safe and effective vaccine.

Chris: - But that does mean that we're potentially foisting additional burdens on 90% of the population, whereas only 10% of the people who actually are the cause of all that.

David - Absolutely, and that's why it's a frustration. I think if we were going to introduce vaccine passports for myself, if I was making these decisions, I would've made the decision to do that before the summer, while we were still in lockdowns, so that people got used to the idea of some freedoms but some restrictions still, rather than letting everybody go out and enjoy their freedom and then start to put restrictions back on. I think we have missed the greatest window of opportunity by not having a vaccine passport plan at the very beginning of the summer. I'd rather, we had a strong and concerted campaign of persuasion talking to people who are vaccine hesitant to try and understand their fears, allay those fears, and show them that they really should change their mind now and get jabbed.

Chris - Do you think that we're actually probably at the point where we should begin to say to people, 'we need to get our confidence back and get back on our horses'? Because actually if one compares what would happen with the flu around this time of year and going into winter and the mortality costs the NHS impact, we're not far removed. Now we've got COVID vaccines from what the flu does to us. Are we?

David - We're not very far removed and I think that alludes to another point, which I think people are not really thinking about much and not thinking through properly. Everybody on this planet, all seven billion of us, will have their day with this virus one day or another. Be it this winter or next winter or the winter after that, there's no dodging this virus now. You will meet it. The only question is, do you want your immune system to meet this new virus trained or untrained for the encounter? And if you want to meet it trained and ready for the fight, then you need to get vaccinated. This is a permanent addition now to the smorgasbord of respiratory diseases. I think with vaccinations and exposures over time, it will become another common cold and not a dangerous disease as it is right now. But yeah, I think we're approaching the point where it will be like flu or respiratory syncytial virus or actually possibly even milder than that and just like the other human coronaviruses.


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