Kate Andrews

Vaccine passports for mass events might be the worst of all worlds

Vaccine passports for mass events might be the worst of all worlds
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Are vaccine passports in our future? The ‘Covid-status certification’ review is underway, carved out of the Prime Minister’s roadmap and handed to Michael Gove in the Cabinet Office to assess and very possibly implement the scheme after Britain has been declared ‘free’. Since the first review update was published — clear on intention but vague on the details — there’s been plenty of speculation as to what kinds of events or establishments might require a passport to access them. Today we got some hints.

A written statement from Gove has been published, on the ongoing ‘extensive review’ that has so far involved consulting ‘clinical, ethical, equalities and privacy specialists, faith and disability groups, businesses and business representative organisations.’ There are more talks and ‘further roundtables’ to come, including with sporting events representatives. Apart from doubling down on not requiring passports to access ‘essential’ shops and services, all other areas of life are left open. Despite reports from the Guardian this morning that vaccine passports won’t be required for pubs and restaurants, Gove has not yet ruled this out.

That said, the statement does seem to lean in certain directions: mainly towards some form of implementation, with emphasis on mass events. Gove’s reference to his trip to Israel in which he witnessed ‘their "Green Pass" system firsthand’ gives the strong impression that the cabinet office minister was further swayed towards passports (even as evidence surfaces that they are already becoming redundant). And despite keeping open the possibility of ‘passports for pints’, his letter singles out mass events, which he references in relation to trials that will be carried out, to test how the passports will work in practice.

For many businesses, certification for big events might seem like the least bad option. The bureaucracy of a passport scheme would bypass much of the hospitality industry. Worries about the unvaccinated struggling to access key parts of daily life might lessen: going to a big event (like a play or a concert) is more akin to a special occasion, and the requirement to take a Covid test to attend would feel more like a one-off than a daily burden.

Indeed, certification for mass events could hit the sweet spot: a middle point between the scheme's advocates and sceptics. But this is where the problem lies. A watered down version of vaccine passports is likely to come under far less scrutiny.

Sir Keir Starmer suggested to the Daily Telegraph last month that the concept of biosecurity cards goes against the ‘British instinct’, yet he has been careful to leave a window open to supporting a passport policy, by rejecting the idea in its ‘current form’. After his interview, the Labour party insisted that passports were not being completely ruled out, with mass events thought to be an area where some compromise might be found.

Were Starmer to get onboard with passports for big events, the scheme sails through parliament, regardless of uproar from rebels in the two largest parties. Then the scheme is in place: the principle is set, the digital infrastructure created, the rollout extended across the country. Only for mass events, for now. But it’s not hard to imagine a circumstance where this changes, and expands, to cover more ground.

Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance have been warning for months that some Covid restrictions may be needed later this year, when the winter season hits, regardless of the UK’s widely hailed vaccine rollout. The focus has been on less intrusive measures, like face masks on public transport, but Vallance has also put emphasis on the possible need to act in a ‘sensible’ way when we ‘interact with people in indoor environments.’ How might ‘sensible behaviour’ be defined in future? Could the need for vaccine passports to go about daily activity be included?

It would be easier to rule such an extension out if the development of ‘Covid-status certification’ had been a more transparent process. Ministers went on the record to insistent no plans for vaccine passports were underway. Vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi labeled such a scheme ‘absolutely wrong’, while Matt Hancock insisted Britain was ‘not a papers-carrying country.’ Gove himself claimed he didn’t know anyone in government who would like to see vaccine passports come to life: yet he is now leading the charge to do just that. Such extreme denials around the scheme itself make it increasingly difficult to believe that if vaccine passports are created for certain parts of our lives, they won’t quickly creep into others.

As Britain continues to be a world leader in its vaccine rollout, one can question if the need for lingering Covid restrictions, and certainly vaccine passports, are at all necessary. If government plans to implement a passport anyway, its push to do so must go hand-in-hand with intense debate and scrutiny. If a seemingly benign version of a passport undercuts this process, we could end up facing a far more meddling system that was never fully considered.