Science

Covid-status certificates could lead to deliberate infections, scientists warn


Covid-status certificates – to allow those who have been vaccinated, recovered from the virus or have tested negative to attend an event or holiday abroad – could do harm as well as good, UK government science advisers have warned.

While they could encourage some people to get vaccinated, the scientists say others may deliberately go out to get infected, in order to test positive for antibodies and get a certificate enabling them to mix more freely.

They say certificates, like vaccine passports, may also encourage people to behave as though they are no longer at risk, discarding masks and ignoring social distancing.

The paper, which has not yet been peer reviewed, was written by a group of eight psychologists and behavioural scientists, all but one of whom take part in the government advisory body on the pandemic known as Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (SPI-B).

Their paper reviews the studies so far carried out of people’s attitudes and likely behaviours if immunity certificates are adopted.

“Allowing people to return to work, meet socially, and fulfil care obligations brings many social, emotional and economic benefits,” write John Drury, social psychology professor at the University of Sussex, and his colleagues.

“Indeed, it might be considered unethical to restrict the movements of those who pose minimal risk to others. Depending on how it is applied, health certification could also encourage vaccination uptake. It also has the potential for harm.

“One concern from a behavioural perspective is that certification may foster an erroneous sense of no risk – both in those with and those without certificates –resulting in behaviours that increase risk of infection or transmission.

“In addition, immunity certification based on a test-positive result for antibodies could have a paradoxical effect on health protective behaviours whereby people deliberately seek infection in order to acquire a certificate.”

Health status certificates are not a new idea, they point out. In the 15th century, printed health passes were used to allow trade and travel during the plague in Europe. They certified only that the bearer had come from a plague-free city.

In the current pandemic, Israel has already introduced a “green pass” app to allow those who are vaccinated to go to concerts and the theatre, while the EU has announced a scheme to allow those who have had Covid-19 or been vaccinated to travel between member states.

The potential benefits of certificates, such as enabling people to go to events and travel more freely and safely, need to be considered in the context of their potential for harm, say the authors, “but the nature and scale of these remains uncertain. Also uncertain is how any harms might most effectively be mitigated.”



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