The pros and cons of COVID passes at gigs – and how it will probably pan out

As with every step of our Government's utterly incompetent pandemic response, the measure is good but its application disastrous

Get Brexit Done. Stop The Steal. No More Lockdowns. Pineapple On Pizza. Subscribe To My Podcast. Every few months, in the accelerating down-spiral whirl of modern social interaction, a new phrase appears, designed to divide us. This week I came across the latest while planning my first in-person gig since March 2020: Gorillaz at the O2 Arena in London. That was phrase was: NHS COVID Pass On Entry.

An NHS COVID Pass. Available only to those fully vaccinated at least 14 days previously, with a negative test within 36 hours of the event or with proof of immunity in the form of a positive PCR test over 180 days old. The dreaded vaccine passport your meme-crazed uncle warned you would instantly turn Britain into a remote prison colony of North Korea.

There are some on my timeline who would consider such a demand akin to immune system apartheid. It’s their fundamental human right, they’d argue, to ironically infect others with a potentially life-shortening virus to ’Feel Good Inc.’. Just as it is to endanger the health of anyone in their tube carriage rather than wear anything that might make their nose itch.

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Grassroots music campaigners, giving up all hope of the Government supporting venues, crew and artists properly through any further restrictions and thus forced to choose between the survival of live music and the health of fans, argue that COVID Passes will stunt the industry’s recovery by excluding young, not-fully-vaccinated punters who’d balk at the cost of a pre-gig test (should the supply of free lateral flow tests be wound down after August).

Ian Brown, Richard Ashcroft and Eric Clapton all refuse to play shows requiring any such safety measures for fans – just as they would, presumably, for any gig barring entry to anyone heavily armed or radioactive. “Coersion!” cries Scared Of Needles Twitter, as if being strapped to a chair and forced to watch militiamen shoot your children unless you comply to their vaccination demands is the same as not being allowed into Bloodstock ‘21.

For vaxxed-up drones such as myself, already submitted to a future as a remote-controlled Windows OS delivery bot, the COVID Pass comes as a huge relief. Not just because the gig will be far safer, but because it’s also less likely to be populated by the more self-centred and entitled gig spoiler, droning on loudly about 5G and test cycle thresholds through the ballads and shoving their phone screen directly in my sightline because the needs of their 14 YouTube subscribers are more important than mine.

At the point where Boris Johnson’s infallible strategy for dealing with the pandemic has reached the critical stage where he flings his arms up, tells us to sort it out ourselves and gets back to the shagging, COVID Passes are undoubtedly a sensible idea. Since we’ve unlocked the country in the middle of the unpredictable exit wave of a highly transmissible variant with just over half of the country fully vaccinated – the sort of move that suggests the real puppet master of the UK’s pandemic response is Mel Brooks – it’s an essential time to be restricting full-capacity events to those unlikely to be a risk to others. The real question is: how long for?

Johnson’s plan to make COVID Passes compulsory for nightclubs – and presumably club-sized gigs as well – by the end of September actually makes sense… if you don’t think about it. The key 18-30 audience for such events will need that long to get fully vaccinated. But since the third wave will have been sweeping unchecked through exactly that unvaccinated population in exactly those venues for 10 weeks by then, what will be the point of vaccine passports for clubs? Chances are, vaccinated or not, most people will have at least some degree of immunity. You might as well raise the Titanic to add a few lifeboats.

At the same time, according to recent data from Israel, those vaccinated six months earlier will be seeing their level of protection dropping; the recently recovered will likely make safer patrons than Pass-waving early vaccine adopters. As time goes on and our antibody protection fades, without regular boosters and updated jab info, a COVID Pass will become increasingly meaningless. I mean, I could show you the receipt to prove I once read Ulysses, but that doesn’t mean my body has retained any trace of it.

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As with every step of our utterly incompetent pandemic response, the measure is good but its application disastrous. Clubs and gigs should be requiring negative tests or proof of full vaccination now, to limit and delay the impact of the exit wave while club-goers get second jabs. Not in two months’ time, when Delta variant has already done its worst or mutated into some terrifying new Snakebite-resistant variant.

Yet when the UK club night organisers Ultimate Power voluntarily decided to require COVID Passes for entry months before they’re legally required, it faced a backlash and backed down (although it rightly still insists on a negative test). Meanwhile, Johnson has been putting deals in place for COVID Passes to potentially last for two years, long after herd immunity should have rendered them redundant.

Instead they should be a short-term measure, phased out – barring a fresh wave when schools reopen – as the virus recedes. Because unless the vaccine programme becomes capable of topping up the entire country’s antibodies every six months, COVID Passes will be all but pointless by early 2022. Best grab one (on paper, preferably; Gates hasn’t started funding our lumberjacks yet) and embrace the relative surety of a COV-safe live experience while you can. In six months they might not be worth the Government tracking app they’re written on.

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