As states and territories begin to plan their reopening strategies, questions have been raised about whether immunization passports or certificates will be required to enter public places – and who will check these documents .
The National Retail Association has stated that it “cannot be up to the retailer” to enforce vaccine certificate compliance due to the potential for customer abuse. The group is calling the police to do the same.
In New South Wales, the health minister initially insisted that police enforce vaccine certificates. However, the NSW Police Commissioner said police would not do so unless told by the owners of the venue.
There is a reason for the police commissioner’s hesitation. The policing of vaccinations is not a criminal justice issue, it is a health issue. So why should we expect the police to enforce vaccine certificates?
If the police are asked to play this role, they will have to navigate their way through a “non-crime issue” being watched by politicians, the retail sector, the health sector and the community at large.
This would put unreasonable expectations and undue pressure on our officers to handle a sensitive task – not to mention time consuming – that they should not be asked to do.
Read more: COVID has changed the policing system – but now the police need to change to better respond to COVID
How other countries are implementing vaccine passports
Similar questions are being raised of enforcement in other countries that are issuing COVID vaccine passports.
In the United States and the United Kingdom, police have largely resisted taking responsibility for checking vaccine certificates, although this may change with the proliferation of counterfeit vaccination cards being sold online and through the health sector.
In Switzerland, the police would be responsible for ensuring compliance with vaccine tests in public establishments, but due to a lack of resources, this would amount to merely spot checks or responding to businesses seeking help. One canton said it would take a softer stance, a spokesman said.
It is very important for us to proceed in a proportionate manner and with common sense.
In Israel, police will move to implement the country’s “green passes” in public places. But officials will not check people at the entrances; Rather, they will focus on ensuring that venue owners are enforcing the rules.
The constant checking of vaccination status of people by the authorities can be regarded as the hallmark of the police state; Actually, China’s digital health code system works like this.
Read more: China’s ‘surveillance creep’: how big of COVID surveillance data can be used to control people after pandemic
If the police enforce universally harsh or zero-tolerance policing at the behest of the state without the consent of the population, we would be living in a truly police state. Or worse, a place where police use excessive force under the guise of pandemic social control, such as in the Philippines.
Thankfully our police didn’t have to take such a harsh approach to enforcing public health restrictions because most people have trusted institutions and followed the rules.
The problem with using the police in this way
But using the police to enforce vaccine certificates for entry into public places would turn a public health issue into a law-enforcement issue.
The focus will be on the ability or inability of the police to manage compliance with public health orders, and police will be on the receiving end of any social backlash should this enforcement be met with resistance.
Public trust in the police was much higher than that of the government, political parties and the media at the start of the pandemic.
But changing the role of the police could erode public confidence in the institution, as police officials previously warned during the pandemic.
Read more: Police access to COVID check-in data is a breach of our privacy. We need stronger and more consistent rules
Enforcing vaccine certificates is also not the best use of police resources. This would take away from the ability of the police to respond to other crimes that are of concern during the pandemic, such as domestic violence and cybercrime.
Police resources are already thin both in Australia and abroad. For example, in the UK, police officers have been retrained to be temporary ambulance drivers to make up for staff shortages, taking them away from their daily policing roles.
The police is the only domestic agency that has a social mandate to enforce the law, maintain public order and protect life and, if necessary, use force in the process. (Even the military cannot.) It is because of this far-reaching mandate that the police have been asked to enforce public health orders.
The ease with which governments can ask or demand the police to play certain roles leaves little – and in some cases no – room for questioning these decisions. In this case, the authorities are not calling the police a disease but a disease, and we should think twice about keeping them in this situation.