Lead or be led. That was the challenge Tony Blair laid down to the prime minister yesterday when he called for Britain to use it’s presidency of the G7 to agree and launch an “international Covid Pass”, or vaccine passport.
“The UK faces a choice: lead or be led,” said Mr Blair. “If we choose to wait, a confusing array of different passports await our citizens. In the year of the UK’s G7 presidency, there has never been a more momentous opportunity – or need – for the government to show global leadership.”
Mr Blair envisages the passport scheme as a single, standardised, digital system capable of tracking and verifying an individual’s coronavirus “status” anywhere in the world.
Included would not just be details of any vaccination they had had – two shots or one, name of the brand, date vaccinated – but also any Covid-19 test results.
Authorities in participating countries would access this data at borders and ports by simply scanning a QR code, rather than relying on reams of unsecured paper.
The proposal is the latest in a string of eye-catching policies advocated by Mr Blair, who has had a good pandemic.
While Boris Johnson has been cruelly buffeted from pillar to post in Downing Street, Mr Blair has pivoted his think tank – the eponymously named Institute for Global Change – to focus on the big strategic challenges thrown up by the virus in more serene surrounds.
He was early in seeing that face-masks and visors would become necessary for key workers and the wider public; he was big on mass testing before others; and he was first to propose a longer gap between vaccine doses in order to protect more vulnerable people quickly.
Speaking to the Telegraph on Tuesday in front of a large piece of Brit art recalling his “Cool Britannia” days, Mr Blair accepted his was the easier role and made no criticism of ministers. “I’ve been there… I’ve no doubt everyone in government is working their socks off,” he said.
But there is little doubt the former prime minister’s pragmatic brand of politics and penchant for the “big picture” suit the current crisis. The virus does not respect ideology but it may be vulnerable to the politics of the “third way” – or so it seems.
On the big picture, Mr Blair said countries in Asia which had suffered a “near death experience” with Sars and Mers had done well by pursuing a policy of “Covid eradication”, but believes that “horse has bolted” for the rest of us.
Instead, countries like Britain must “manage” the virus, something which requires a “completely different modus operandi”, he said.
“What policymakers are going to have to do now is get themselves into a different headspace, where they’re asking questions like, how do you manage to track a new variant, develop a new vaccine, and get it manufactured within weeks?”
The focus, he insisted, must go beyond what might normally be considered “possible”. Politicians had no choice but to raise their game and deliver what was “necessary”.
A vaccine passport is one such necessity, he said, because world trade must continue and international business travel and tourism oil its wheels.
“I don’t think the new normal is going to look like the old one. But I think [international travel] is in the nature of modern business and tourism, it is still what people want to do.”
If Britain does not act now others will, he added. Israel, Iceland and the European Union are already working on vaccine passport schemes and even countries like New Zealand and Australia cannot remain “shut off from the world” for good.
Mr Blair warned that unless Britain took action now it faced two risks. “One is that everyone just does their own thing, which is much more chaotic and difficult to manage. Or secondly, there’s a set of rules in place that you may not be that happy with.”
Such a scheme is not without challenges. Some countries may struggle with a digital infrastructure, instead opting to stick with paper documentation akin to existing yellow fever vaccination certificates. Worse, some vaccines may turn out to be more protective against transmission of the virus than others – and therefore count for more on a passport. There would also be difficult privacy concerns to overcome.
Mr Blair conceded that inequalities were also bound to emerge. Limited vaccine supply means younger people may have to wait longer for vaccines and therefore vaccine passports. Wealthy countries would be ahead of developing nations.
“I can’t see another way out of it,” he said. “If it’s inevitable that countries are going to demand proof of vaccination, then, in a sense, you’ve just got to have that system. The way of dealing with inequality is basically, is to make sure that the vaccinations are available as broadly as possible.”
Looking further ahead, Mr Blair said that the emergence of new variants posed the greatest challenge – one that would also require global cooperation to defeat.
“The following is now clear: One, that this virus is going to continue to mutate; two, that it is not clear that existing vaccines will be effective against these mutations; and three, that there is an outside possibility… that you get mutations further down the line that are very difficult to vaccinate against.”
Retaining laser focus on treatments and testing will be vital in the world of mutants, he said, but increasing vaccine manufacturing capacity globally so we are able to respond “at speed” to new variants was key.
“It’s going to be a new world altogether. The sooner we grasp that and start to put in place the decisions [needed for a] deep impact over the coming years the better,” he said.
The former prime minister said the pandemic had been made worse by a lack of global cooperation and hoped President Joe Biden’s new administration may facilitate change.
“I think that for reasons of enlightened self interest the Americans will want to work with other countries… I know the people coming into key positions in the Biden administration quite well, they’re all very reasonable, smart people… they completely get that you need global coordination.”
Even so, Mr Blair was uncertain about the future. Asked for his outlook he responded: “I’m optimistic that it’s now clear what we need to do. I’m anxious as to whether we’re going to do it.”
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