On BBC One’s Andrew Marr show Sajid Javid confirmed that plans for domestic vaccine passports in England were on the way out, even before they were formally brought in: ‘We should keep it in reserve,’ he said of the government’s plans to link vaccine status to entry into nightclubs, but ‘I’m pleased to say we will not be going ahead with plans for vaccine passports.’
Vaccine passports have been a roller-coaster policy for months now, with claims made by members of the Cabinet at the start of the year that they weren’t being considered: that nothing so ‘discriminatory’, in the words of vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi, would be implemented. Since then, plans to introduce them have been announced, an NHS app has been rolled out that downloads the passport onto your phone.
Now the government has backtracked. This morning the health secretary made the case for scrapping Covid certification. With such a successful vaccine rollout, Javid argued, passports are a tool no longer needed. Better, instead, to focus resources towards getting more people jabbed and a booster programme, if approved.
But Javid made a more fundamental case against passports too:
‘We just shouldn’t be doing things for the sake of it, or because others are doing it. We should look at every possible intervention properly…I think it’s fair to say most people instinctively don't like the idea. I’ve never liked the idea of saying to people “you must show your papers” or something to do what is just an everyday activity.’
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) September 12, 2021
"We shouldn't be doing things for the sake of it"Health Secretary Sajid Javid says a scheme for vaccine passports for entry to nightclubs and large events in England will not be going aheadhttps://t.co/0WkSrkrIAB #Marr pic.twitter.com/bhWRfdXISZ
This was a theme in Javid’s interview with Nick Robinson. On domestic restrictions, as well as travel, he often took the arguments back to basics: that such power over people’s lives should be temporary, not a mechanism to usher in a new normal. ‘We should only keep measures in place if they are absolutely, totally necessary,’ said Javid. ‘Now that might sound obvious to most people, but that’s not always how government works. Sometimes governments do things, and they get a bit too used to it.’ To this end, Javid hinted that the government may only be looking to renew certain parts of the Coronavirus Act next week, rather than campaign to keep hold of all sweeping emergency powers for another six months.
Javid's rebuke of vaccine passports today reflects the arguments Boris Johnson used to make against ID cards and state overreach. Despite the PM being very well-placed to make them again, this torch, it seems, has been passed to Javid.
So what to make the government's most recent U-turn? Was the threat of passports a cynical ploy to get young people to take up the vaccine, with no real plans to follow through? Just this week Zahawi was still arguing that Covid certification was the ‘right thing to do.’ Despite Javid's insistence this morning that passports were only being considered, they were indeed a flagship part of Boris Johnson’s reopening announcement on 19 July.
But it became increasingly clear over the summer that Boris Johnson had a fight on his hands with his backbenchers, many of whom were vocally hostile to the idea of passports. The widespread opposition to the policy amongst Tory MPs became increasingly clear this week, when Zahawi had to field fierce criticism in the House of Commons from his own party. Meanwhile, Scottish Labour refused to support their introduction last week, which was ushered through by the SNP. Labour in Whitehall have been wavering over the policy, and may have gone the same way. Had the government pushed ahead, it’s not obvious passports would have gone through.
Plenty of businesses will be cheering the announcement today: UK Hospitality estimated that, had vaccine passports been introduced, business profitability could have dropped by a quarter. But there are still outstanding questions on passports. Javid made no mention of the many venues that have already ushered in passports: will this be a decision left to business, or does the government plan to intervene? What about ‘no jab, no job?’ Are we still looking at a wave of care home staff losing their job, if they don’t get their first Covid jab within the next few weeks?
No doubt pressure is still on the government to make more of its ideological leanings on these delicate issues known. But for now, mandatory domestic passports have been shelved, and arguments for liberty, not just practicality, are being used for doing so.