Fraser Nelson

Johnson is in trouble over vaccine passports – and it’s showing

Johnson is in trouble over vaccine passports – and it's showing
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The biggest question facing Boris Johnson is the future of his so-called vaccine passports. A few months ago, the idea was dismissed by No. 10 as 'discriminatory'. Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said: 'We are not a papers-carrying country.' But now, without debate or democratic scrutiny, vaccine passports are quickly heading from unthinkable to unstoppable. Today, No. 10 released more details — hence the questions Johnson is facing. But bizarrely, the Prime Minister was unable to admit to any of it, and pretended to be confused by what he was being asked. This matters. If he cannot acknowledge his flagship scheme, leaving such an indefensible gulf between what his government has just published and what he has just said, he may already be in some political trouble.

His ministers use ‘vaccine passport’ as a euphemism but even this sounded awful to him. He corrected those who said 'passport', referring instead to a ‘Covid status certification’. But a certificate doesn’t have someone’s photo on it. What he is planning is a digital identity card – but linked to NHS records and loaded with personal health data, so a bioidentity card. The BBC’s Iain Watson asked whether he would ‘like to take this opportunity to reassure sceptics that while could be useful for big events, you will not need to take a certificate to the local pub to gain entry'. Boris Johnson’s reply:

A very important thing to say to everybody listening and watching is that there is absolutely no question of people being asked to produce certification or a Covid status report when they go to the shops or to the pub garden or the hairdressers or whatever… on Monday.

A disingenuous response. No one was asking about Monday. It’s about the new system he left Michael Gove is charge of, for use in the summer after the PM's final 21 June roadmap deadline has passed. The conclusion of the government’s first lockdown review, published today, primarily looks at vaccine passports and international travel. It clearly says that vaccine identity cards could be demanded ‘in hospitality settings’ — in other words, in pubs. Contrary to what some of the weekend papers had been briefed, a passport for the pub is a live idea. Johnson really ought to have been honest about that, and explained why he thinks it’s worth considering.

Perhaps he evaded the question because the official explanation is too absurd to repeat: that landlords and others are loudly demanding vaccine passports. So the pressure comes from them! Promise! Not at all to do with Michael Gove! The actual words used in the official documents say that it is ‘right that the government provides a means of easily demonstrating Covid status’ given all of the demand. This is a fantasy. Are employers really crying out for immunity passports? Other than Pimlico Plumbers, which has threatened a ‘no jab, no job’ policy, the PM would struggle to name many examples.

These press conferences don’t offer much scrutiny because journalists can’t come back with a second question if — as happened with Iain Watson — the PM answers a different question to the one asked. But if the issue is important enough, the next journalist can pick up on it, as ITV’s Shehab Khan then did:

I appreciate the plan to introduce vaccine passports isn’t coming in the next few steps [out of lockdown]. To expand on that idea: do you think it’s fair to expect people to show a certificate to do something that was once a normal activity?

In other words, is the PM seriously expecting businesses to turn people away if they don’t have a vaccine certificate?

So again, Johnson was being asked to defend his just-published plan. Again, he panicked. ‘I direct you to what I said to Iain,’ he said. Why? His response to Iain Watson had specifically been about Monday — Khan was asking about what comes later this year. Then, Johnson thought of another deflection. ‘You’re taking too many fences at once,’ he said — as if Khan was making the whole thing up.

Too many fences? His own review lays out precisely that proposal Khan mentioned — using immunity status to dictate the freedoms to which citizens are entitled. ‘When we have proposals, we will be setting them out,' Johnson then said. Again, an evasion. Newspapers have been full of his proposals for vaccine ID cards, and the Sunday Telegraph published a government-supplied image of what a passport would look like (pictured above). Worse, officials working on Johnson's own review into ID cards have been told that it’s no longer up for debate because ‘the Prime Minister wants them’. Johnson’s personal word is being used to stop discussion internally. How, after this, can he still pretend it’s not happening?

Sky’s Beth Rigby was next at the press conference. Not so long ago, she said, Johnson laid out ‘a roadmap to freedom’. Now something different is emerging — it’s a roadmap to a ‘papers, please’ society. What happened?

‘A great deal depends on the vaccine rollout,’ he replied. Again: wrong. None of his vaccine passport plans, as published today or briefed over the weekend, depend on the vaccine rollout. ‘If things continue to go well, for many people in many ways, our life will begin to get back to some semblance of normality. We’ve got to be guided by the data and follow the roadmap.’

His official review goes far further, suggesting social distancing guidelines may be used to punish pubs and other places that do not implement vaccine passports. (As ever, in our new Orwellian world, the reverse language is used — restrictions will be lifted for those who comply):

It is possible that Covid-status certification could also play a role in reducing social distancing requirements in other settings which people tend to visit more frequently, for example in hospitality settings.

What does this mean? What’s the point of spending £2.6 million on a new communications centre if the PM is going to refuse to properly communicate? If the Prime Minister cannot level with the public, if internal debate about this has been banned in his cabinet committee, where will the scrutiny come from?

But there's a harder question. If he finds himself unable to defend vaccine passports, how can his MPs be expected to vote for them? Is he instinctively against the idea but ended up (once again) outmanoeuvred by Gove? The collapse of parliamentary scrutiny has emboldened a certain faction inside the Tory government, who are seeing what they can get away with — especially if Keir Starmer keeps taking the Tory whip. They can behave this way: repeatedly deny something is happening, only to later present it as irreversible. 

We had enough questions asked about vaccine passports today to know that the PM cannot, or will not, answer them. Given the ferocity of the debate ahead — and the depth of concern in his party — this bodes ill.