‘Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Peter Davis – Vaccine passport and smoke-free law’

This article was published in The New Zealand Herald, 19th September 2021

Remember the days when a non-smoker might enter a clear-aired restaurant or a plane, and then someone would light up a cigarette and their smoke would waft across everyone nearby? As a non-smoker you just had to grin and bear it. This person was exercising their rights and you had little recourse. 

Some businesspeople got savvy and separated enclosed spaces into smoking and non-smoking areas. But, unless they were hermetically sealed, the smoke often still seeped across. 

Finally, scientists discovered that environmental (or second-hand) smoke adversely affected the health of those nearby. This changed the calculus. Not only was a smoker shortening the odds on their own life, but they were also diminishing the health of those around them. This altered the debate on personal rights and liberties. The rights of non-smokers to a healthy life were being infringed every time they shared personal space with smokers.

It was a consequence of this new understanding – both scientific and philosophical – that New Zealand, in line with a number of other countries at the time, was able to pass the Smoke-free Environments Act 1990. Although narrowly-construed around the rights of employees to work without being exposed to second-hand smoke, it actually had more far-reaching implications because employees working in restaurants, bars and other enclosed areas were also protected, and so followed a slow change in our social mores and expectations. The act was updated in 2003 to cover a wider range of enclosed environments, although there were still exemptions.

Fast-forward 15 years and we have a similar public health and philosophical problem on our hands, but inflicted on us by an infectious disease – COVID-19 – not a personal behaviour like smoking. 

The current Delta outbreak has brought home to New Zealanders the true ramifications of the pandemic. We have been largely sheltered from this for the past year. To the amazement of the international community, we enjoyed almost unrestricted freedoms – all without vaccination, and all without the social and economic mayhem evident in many other parts of the world.

We now realise that this disease can breach almost any border biosecurity and, once it is through that border, it spreads silently, stealthily and with drastic, even lethal, health consequences. This has provided a spur to vaccination that, no matter the amount of worthy exhortation, we would never have otherwise achieved. Australia and New Zealand as international outliers are now we getting vaccinated, spurred on by our outbreaks.

Once we start opening up our borders, the risks will rise, even with high levels of vaccination. The data show that, compared to the vaccinated, the unvaccinated have five times the level of infection and ten times the level of hospitalization and death. But the vaccinated still run the risk of infection, harm, and even death.

Like the non-smoker of yesteryear, a vaccinated person on entering, say, a workplace, restaurant, bar, supermarket, or plane, would want to be reassured that their health was not at undue risk from the presence of potential carriers of the disease.

So, perhaps we need to consider the precedent of how the Smoke-free Environments Act protected our health from smokers and look at how we can be protected from the unvaccinated who are the most likely vectors of COVID-19 in its troubling variants? That would require demonstration of vaccination or of COVID-19-free status by way of a vaccination passport or quick test. Easily said, but what safeguards do we need?

The Australia Institute – a sister think-tank – and the Centre for Responsible Technology have recently released a report in which they outline the principles for a safe and ethical “passport”, saying that it should: 

  • Respect privacy
  • Only use data for intended purpose
  • Be managed by users directly
  • Only capture the minimal amount of data
  • Have clear and unambiguous terms and conditions
  • Require data to expire after intended use fulfilled
  • Be safe from fraudulent and harmful access
  • Allow legitimate exemptions (but with alternative verification)
  • Cover all groups, including temporary migrants and residents
  • Work with the private sector
  • Allow for verifiable non-digital format for those without digital access
  • Not use problematic biometrics for identification

With these kinds of safeguards New Zealand would be in a position to build the strong line of defence it needs in order to deal with the inevitability of border and other breaches of COVID-19. The Smoke-free Environments Act, which New Zealand pioneered, provides an adaptable template.

Peter Davis, Emeritus Professor of Population Health and Social Science, University of Auckland, and Chair of The Helen Clark Foundation, an independent public policy think-tank.

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