Next Monday is ‘freedom day’ when all social distancing restrictions are removed. Clubs will reopen, pubs will be packed, sports crowds will resume and the bells of liberty will ring out across the nation. Well, that’s the theory at least. The reality is, as Sajid Javid told the Commons on Monday, that all these venues are being urged by the government to use ‘Covid passports’. Businesses operating in ‘high risk settings’ with limited indoor ventilation will be ‘supported and encouraged’ to use a certification system to check that customers have had either been double- jabbed or had a recent negative Covid test.
For those venues which take part, access will be restricted to people who have an ‘NHS Covid Pass’ on the official NHS App or have proof of a negative lateral flow test from Test and Trace within the last 48 hours. Naturally Mr Steerpike was keen to look at the evidence on which the government had made this decision and so turned to the 16-page report paper ‘COVID-Status Certification Review’ released earlier this month.
Mr S would suggest the report wasn’t worth the paper it is written on – except that a lot of the paper isn’t written on at all. No fewer than eight pages are either blank or containing the contents or title of the report, drawn up by Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office. The paper essentially boils down to one line on page seven which states:
Having considered a wide range of evidence as part of the review, the Government has concluded that it will not mandate the use of COVID-status certification as a condition of entry for visitors to any setting at the present time.
Readers will note this shift to putting the burden onto individual businesses so as to avoid claims these certificates have been ‘mandated’ while refusing to ban them, allowing them to be introduced ‘voluntarily'.
The report has just half a page on the ‘public health considerations’ which notably contains no consideration of those most likely to be infected. It ends with a milquetoast conclusion that ‘certification could also have an impact on people’s behaviours in both positive and negative.’ Hardly a resounding endorsement. There are meanwhile just three short paragraphs on the rather fundamental question of ‘ethics and equalities considerations’, including one which is just a sentence long about the importance of accessibility – no mitigations are suggested.
Amid fears about data privacy, one line jumped out in the ‘business considerations’ section – the desire from representative organisations to develop ‘a system… interoperable with third party systems.’ Equally eye-catching is the ‘Call for Evidence’ fact section that notes the review received 52,450 responses, 99 per cent of which were from members of the public writing in a personal capacity. The report notes that ‘most individuals who responded to the call for evidence expressed strong views against certification’ – a fact that the conclusions decided to brush over completely.
For a report on certification, this one certainly seems to fail the test.