THE first mention of a passport seems to be by Nehemiah who, in what would be a breach of the current regulations, was handing out the drinks to King Artaxerxes indoors, and feeling glum about the state of Jerusalem’s walls. The King gave him letters of safe passage to go off and repair them.

Their history – passports, that is, not Jerusalem’s walls – since has been up and down; I was surprised to discover that France, and a lot of other European countries, scrapped them altogether in the middle of the 19th century, feeling that the railways had made them pointless, and that they only came back in again after the First World War.

Like many people who think there’s something unBritish about authority figures demanding you produce papers on their say-so, I rather approve of that approach. In general, I’d like things to work on the assumption that the powers-that-be should have to produce good reasons why we shouldn’t be free to do something, rather than that we should have to provide evidence that they have permitted us to do whatever it is.

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I’m well aware that there is a contrary, net-curtain-twitching attitude, equally prevalent in the British character. These are the people who say things like: if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear, and who would like to report their neighbours to the police for painting their front door the wrong colour.

This lot have been much in evidence during the past year: when restrictions were reintroduced at the end of last year, an amazing 47 per cent of people in one poll were of the view that they didn’t go far enough.

But whether you’re of a relatively liberal disposition, or an interfering busybody, it would have been difficult to imagine, 18 months ago, that a passport would be required to buy a pint, get your hair cut, go to the football, or nip down to the shops. Yet that is where we are, with politicians and commentators – some of them with previously impeccable libertarian credentials – seriously discussing whether a new category of discrimination should be created and recognised by the law. One which might, on some suggestions, require you to disclose and prove your medical history to employers, theatre ushers, restaurateurs and travel companies.

There are plenty of reasons why this proposal should be seen as illiberal, unfairly divisive and ineffectual – not least because it should be transparently obvious to a man with half an eye that it is all those things. But the fact that it would be self-evident in normal circumstances doesn’t mean that, in the current climate, it’s as open-and-shut a case as – one would hope – almost everyone would find it.

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It’s clear that, like it or not, some scheme where people will have to disclose their vaccination status in order to travel abroad is almost certain. And, until vaccination in different countries reaches similar levels, the case for it is not hard to see. A slightly more problematic but still entirely logical argument could be made for some employers – the NHS or care homes would be the most obvious – to insist that any workers dealing with the most vulnerable should be subject to testing or proof of immunisation. Some workers (or their unions) may want assurances that their working conditions – dealing with crowds, for example – are safe, and see passports as a means to that end.

There are, in my view, rather more reasons to oppose it: it discriminates against those who cannot have the vaccine for medical reasons, the young, who mostly haven’t even had the chance to have it, it gives too much power to the government, it would be expensive and probably ineffective. It would certainly be easy to subvert: as I happens, I’m already taking the two tests a week the Prime Minister was pushing for yesterday (because I have children at secondary school), but they’re self-reported. Even leaving aside the whole question of false positives and negatives, and assuming the self-administered test is flawless, the confirmatory text from the NHS saying that I’m negative is merely telling me what I’ve just told them.

Whichever side of the fence you come down on, though – like so many other issues over the past year – a question about restrictions that would usually be unthinkable anywhere other than a police state has become a legitimate topic for debate. And, though I’d oppose vaccine passports, I can see why.

It’s a different question from whether you think the circumstances actually justify the measures. It is at least conceivable that they could. It is also a different question from whether you trust the government (either at Westminster or Holyrood), or think that the Tories, or the SNP, have dangerously authoritarian instincts. I think one can easily believe some in both parties do without veering into hyperbolic accusations (selectively misquoting that essay by Umberto Eco) that fully-fledged fascism is on the agenda.

But all the same, the thing that we – and those in parliament – need to keep firmly in mind is that the question of a curtailment of liberties of this sort would normally be unthinkable. If it is thinkable now, it is only because the state has armed itself with powers that it ought never to have, except in times of national emergency.

There has to be the suspicion – even if you think Boris Johnson’s instincts, or Nicola Sturgeon’s, are fundamentally benign, or at least not akin to Mussolini’s – that some politicians and public officials are getting rather too comfortable with restricting our freedoms or, worse, that the fact they simply find it more convenient to do so is coming to seem justification enough.

Even the most gung-ho proponent of lockdowns, vaccine passes, continuous testing and draconian travel bans should be on guard against allowing such an attitude to develop. And though many will think the vaccine deniers, the extreme libertarians or the straightforwardly selfish partygoers are irresponsible and dangerous, the fact is that their position, or at least their right to hold it, is the normal one, and one that we should all be aiming to return to as soon as possible. The “salus populi” that Cicero argued should be the supreme law was to do with the welfare of the people, rather than an aspect of public health enforcement.

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