The story of Covid has been one of government repeatedly ruling things out – and then coming back several weeks later and introducing them nonetheless. It happened with lockdown, compulsory wearing of masks, and now it looks as if it might be happening with vaccine passports. Remember vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi telling us of vaccine passports in February: ‘That’s not how we do things in Britain. We do them by consent.’ This week the Prime Minister seems to have changed the government’s tune, by suggesting that we might, after all, have to show some kind of proof of vaccination before being allowed into pubs or other such premises. He did say that whether to demand vaccination passports or not would be left to individual establishments, but the course has been set. No one should be surprised if, in a couple of months’ time, we are extremely restricted in what we can do without waving around of piece of paper, or showing a smartphone app, confirming that we have been vaccinated.
But there is a very big practical problem. Under the current roadmap for lifting the lockdown, pubs are due to be allowed to serve customers outdoors on 12 April and to admit customers indoors on 17 May. Yet the government’s current target is to have all adults vaccinated only by the end of July, while vaccinations for children are expected to begin from August onwards. There will therefore be a period of two to three months when the pubs will be open but a large proportion of their clientele will not have been offered a vaccine.
Does that mean that for this period many pubs could be accessible by older customers who have had the vaccine but not by younger ones? The BBC this morning reports that a government source has attempted to clear this up by suggesting that pubs and other venues might accept a negative test result instead of proof of vaccination. Political editor Laura Kuenssberg has further tweeted that such a vaccination passport scheme might not come into effect until everyone in the country has been offered a vaccine. But would that mean that pubs could initially open without a scheme in place – or is the government preparing the path to delay the reopening on hospitality venues until the end of July?
The other question is how much would a vaccination passport scheme actually achieve? So far, 90 per cent of those invited for a vaccination have had the jab: it was 93.7 per cent in the over 80s and 94.0 per cent in 75- to 80-year-olds. This may fall, but there are going to be relatively few people who would be turned away at a pub door. Moreover, being vaccinated does not fully protect you against being infected and being infectious. The latest, revised data from the US AstraZeneca trials shows a 76 percent efficacy at preventing symptomatic disease, but the efficacy of preventing asymptomatic infection is likely to be some way lower than that. Demanding a vaccine passport could help reduce the chances of admitting an infectious person into a pub, but not necessarily by all that much. It could turn out to be a bit like Matt Hancock’s famous Test and Trace app, which was supposed to be the route back to normal life but has now been largely forgotten.