Making Covid certificates compulsory to enter pubs could help tackle vaccine hesitancy among young people, government figures believe, amid fears of a “stark” future fall in uptake among younger age groups.
Government insiders are understood to believe that threatening to restrict freedoms to visit venues such as pubs could act as a “nudge” for younger people in particular.
One senior source predicted the fall in uptake of vaccines offered to lower age groups could be “stark”, with young people thought to be a “particularly hesitant group”. With more than half of the UK population having had their first dose, uptake among older people has beaten expectations and exceeded 90% among some groups.
Earlier this year Israel – which is leading the world in vaccine distribution – reported a drop in the number of people attending vaccine appointments, put down in part to apathy after it began offering jabs to those aged under 35. There is concern the same could be true in England.
A UK government source said: “If the argument on health grounds doesn’t really wash because young people think they’re going to be fine and their grandparents and parents have all taken it, the strongest nudge is: ‘You’re not going to be able to be as free as you’d like.’ Not being allowed into pubs may focus minds.”
On Wednesday Boris Johnson told MPs that pubgoers could be asked to provide proof they have been inoculated, saying this “may be up to individual publicans”. Pressed on the issue on Thursday, he urged people to await the conclusions of a review and suggested the documents may not be introduced until all adults have been offered a jab.
Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, is seen by government insiders as a strong supporter of the Covid status certificate scheme, buoyed up by the success of the Israeli system. But officials and ministers are said to be divided between whether the certification should only apply to mass events, for which there is broad support, or to smaller venues as well, which is more controversial.
The Guardian understands that the consultation has been taking outside evidence on whether certificates could act as an incentive for younger people to take the jab, with officials asking directly whether the tool could work as a “nudge” for them to get vaccinated.
Concern is less over whether younger people are vaccine-sceptical and more about whether those in their 20s and 30s will be more relaxed about the risk to their own health, and therefore more blase about booking an appointment. It is claimed that making them prove their vaccine status – or have a negative test – in order to enter a pub or bar could provide a powerful stimulus to get inoculated.
Officials have also taken evidence on the legal risks of the system, including whether it might contravene the European convention on human rights and what it might mean for employment rights.
They are considering whether it might be possible to permit pubs to check customers’ Covid status but not the status of their bartenders, which is how the law operates in Israel. This would be less complex than needing to change employment law.
Ensuring the scheme includes people able to prove a negative test result could negate the claim of indirect discrimination against the vaccine-hesitant, some believe. Another area under debate is whether those who have previously had the virus should be allowed to obtain a status certificate showing they have coronavirus antibodies to secure entry to a venue.
Questions have been raised in government about how the certificates would work given the “significant reduction” in vaccine supply predicted by NHS England next month, and as the final stage of lockdown easing could be as early as 21 June – before the government’s official end of July target for vaccinating all adults.
Research appears to back up the suggestion young people are less likely to get a vaccine. A survey of more than 170,000 people by Imperial College London and Ipsos Mori found that 99% of over-80s said they would accept a jab compared to 83% of 18- to 29-year-olds.
An Office for National Statistics study published last month found 17% of 16- to 29-year-olds reported being hesitant to get a Covid vaccine, compared to only 1% of over-70s.
Prof John Drury of the University of Sussex, a government scientific adviser who sits on its behaviour insights group, SPI-B, said in a personal capacity that ministers have “always had an issue with young people” since the pandemic began.
He cited them being less likely to stay at home towards the start of the outbreak in March 2020 because “social life is much more important for young people and some of the messaging probably didn’t help around that because it was about protect yourself and self-interest; then they changed that to think about your community and your family”.
Drury warned against a “crude” approach to encouraging people to get vaccinated, echoed by another SPI-B scientist, Prof Stephen Reicher, who warned those who need persuading to get vaccinated could be put off by feeling forced into it, which he said would “create major problems”.
A government spokesperson said: “We continue to do all we can to encourage all those eligible to get a vaccine. As set out in the roadmap, we’ll review whether Covid status certification could play a role in reopening our economy including international travel, reducing restrictions on social contact and improving safety.”