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Vaccine passports: the controversial pandemic measure, explained

What’s the story? Boris Johnson has confirmed the Government is considering a rollout of Covid status certificates – or what have already become popularly known as “vaccine passports”. In a press conference on Monday night, the Prime Minister said that some form of Covid certification will remain “a feature of our lives” until the pandemic is over. For now, the plans are only intended for people travelling abroad, and ministers have ruled out introducing them in pubs, restaurants and shops before step four of the roadmap, which takes place on June 21 at the earliest. The “certificate” the Government plans to use will not only prove vaccine status: it could also contain information about a recent negative test, or whether the person wielding it has antibodies from a previous Covid infection that could leave them immune to catching the virus again. But critics of the idea say that it could lead to a “two-tier” Britain, with some allowed out of their homes to enjoy the easing of restrictions, and others left waiting for their turn in the vaccine rollout. Others say vaccine passports are just another form of ID card, and object to the idea that the Government would restrict the public’s movements based on what is essentially their medical record. The Government has acknowledged that there are ethical and legal concerns about passporting, and says it will consider various objections to the policy during its review. But Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, said yesterday it would be “remiss” of ministers not to at least consider a scheme that might allow the public “to take our lives back”. Over the weekend, The Telegraph reported that Michael Gove has promised sceptics of the scheme a vote in Parliament, making it possible the Government could be defeated in the Commons. At least 41 Tory MPs have said they would vote against Covid certificates, and Labour yesterday signalled it would do the same if concessions are not made to avoid “discrimination” in shops and hospitality, if the scheme was used there. The SNP is reportedly open to the idea of supporting the plans – and Nicola Sturgeon has called for a “grown-up” debate about them. The Liberal Democrats have said they would vote against the Government in any Commons division. Looking back Much of the opposition to vaccine passports flows from the fact that ministers have previously denied they would ever introduce such a scheme, then promptly rowed back on that promise. In February, Mr Zahawi said the Government had “no plans” to introduce Covid certificates domestically because they would be “discriminatory”, adding: “That’s not how we do things in the UK”. Now, the Government’s latest trial of large events – including a club night, comedy gig and the FA Cup Final – will use a prototype of the certificate scheme to see if it works. That has made some people very angry. So angry, in fact, that the comedy gig the Government was using to trial some of its measures has had to be cancelled following what the venue described as a “hate campaign” against it. The gig itself was not planning to use any form of vaccine passport. Although the UK is further ahead in its vaccine rollout and lockdown roadmap than most countries, there is some international precedent for similar schemes. In Israel, customers already have to prove their vaccine status on an app to use gyms and hotels. China has built a vaccine passport system into WeChat, its most popular social network, and Denmark has developed a “Coronapas” system granting access to hairdressers, restaurants and cinemas for immunised citizens. Ministers have also pointed out that some form of vaccine passport has been needed for international travel for some time – through the Yellow Fever card, for instance. Some healthcare staff are also asked to have a vaccine for Hepatitis B, especially if they are dealing with patients’ blood, but that requirement is just NHS policy rather than law. Anything else? While the core of this debate is about high-minded arguments over civil liberties, much of the discussion so far has been about what exactly the passports will be used for. And the truth is that we don’t yet know exactly why people might need a Covid certificate. It seems very likely that one will be needed for international travel, but almost everyone in this debate agrees that is unavoidable, especially if it is the governments of other countries that require them. Ministers have ruled out their use in pubs, restaurants and shops – for now – but have repeatedly refused to say that they would never be used there. Labour argues that the guidelines on the certificates published by the Government leave the door open for passports being required in “Next or H&M”, which has never been discussed by officials but could be introduced later. Other Labour sources questioned whether developing an app is a good use of public money, since the last time the NHS tried to build an app to trace the virus it was hugely expensive and didn’t work. Not much has been said about the use of the certificates in care homes, but we know that at least one provider has been trialling a scheme to keep residents safe. That raises the prospect of elderly relatives being put in a position where their grandchildren can’t visit because they haven’t yet been offered a jab. Hospitality industry sources told the Refresher that pubs and restaurants are concerned that their customers could need passports later this year – adding huge costs for venues and potentially driving business away. Several private companies have been involved in developing the technology and trialling it in settings around the UK, which some think runs the risk of cronyism and wastage. The Refresher take The vaccine passports debate is only really just getting started, and we won’t know much more about what the scheme will actually involve or where it will be used for some months. In the meantime, opposition parties must carefully position themselves such that they cannot be accused of either holding up the easing of lockdown or allowing the Government to take liberties with individual freedom. On the policy end, ministers and officials must find a way to implement the scheme, with various technical, data-related and ethical issues standing in their way. And once that is over, there could be a major Commons bunfight and the possibility of a Government defeat. It’s going to be an interesting few months. This was first published in The Telegraph’s Refresher newsletter. For more facts and explanation behind the week’s biggest political stories, sign up to the Refresher here – straight to your inbox every Wednesday afternoon for free.

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