Boris Johnson has suggested that Covid status certificates are unlikely to be required until the whole population has been offered a vaccination, after MPs and scientists warned of the risk of a two-tier system if certification were required for pubs.
Downing Street said there would be an “initial update” on the progress of the review into coronavirus passports next month, which could include either vaccine status or a recent test result, but a full report is not expected until June.
The Guardian revealed on Wednesday that pubs which ask customers to show their Covid status, likely to be in the form of a modified NHS app, could be allowed to drop social-distancing rules. That would be a profitable incentive for pubs, as well as for citizens to get a test or get vaccinated.
Johnson hinted on Wednesday that he was in favour of letting landlords decide, but asked about the issue again on Thursday, he said it was premature to be talking about it. “What we want to do is roll out the vaccine programme and see what that builds in terms of general resistance to the virus,” he said.
“There are lots of difficult issues because there are some people who, for medical reasons, can’t get a vaccination, pregnant women can’t get a vaccination at the moment. You’ve got to be careful about how you do this.
“And you might only be able to implement a thorough-going vaccination passport scheme, even if you wanted such a thing, in the context of when absolutely everybody had been offered a vaccine.”
A number of MPs, industry figures and scientists have expressed doubt about the proposal.
The shadow business secretary, Ed Miliband, said ministers should not leave the use of vaccine passports to the discretion of pub landlords if they thought it was the right move for public health.
“I don’t think that’s really the thing that is going to persuade people to get the vaccine. I think we’ve done brilliantly in this country at rolling out the vaccine and people taking up the vaccine, and the key thing is a campaign of persuasion for people to take up the vaccine,” he said.
Miliband said the prime minister had not actually provided evidence the step was necessary.
“If the government has got evidence that this is necessary for people to go to hospitality venues, let’s look at that evidence. That isn’t quite what the prime minister said yesterday,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.
“And indeed if it was necessary, why would you be leaving it up to individual landlords? If this was really a public health measure, you wouldn’t be saying, ‘Well, it is going to be a landlord discretion.’ You’d be saying, ‘This is the government’s view, this is what’s safe.’ So there are many, many unanswered questions about this.”
The Sage adviser Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said he believed vaccine passports “crosses that line of individual freedoms and public health” and said there were better ways to incentivise public health measures.
“I think public health totally depends on trust and a sense of ownership by all of us,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “I think passports and certificates may be necessary and there may be political reasons for doing them. But I would prefer to see persuasion and engagement and trust in the system that it would work for all of us.”
Johnson told the liaison committee of MPs on Wednesday he had been “thinking very deeply” about the issue. “My impression is that there is a huge wisdom in the public’s feeling about this and people instinctively recognise when something is dangerous and they can see that Covid is collectively a threat, and they want us as their government and me as the prime minister to take all the actions I can to protect them,” he said.
The Tory MP William Wragg, who was questioning Johnson at the liaison committee, said he could not imagine the prime minister supporting the certification “in a past life” as a Daily Telegraph columnist.
Steve Baker, Conservative deputy chair of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic MPs, said it was “a dangerous path” and hinted it could drive more MPs to vote against the government at the renewal of coronavirus rules on Thursday.
The chair of the British Pub Confederation, Greg Mulholland, told the Sun that checks would be an extra burden for pubs. “On top of having to take on extra staff to serve people at tables, the idea pubs can take on staff to act as door staff for vaccine passports is absurd.”
A Whitehall source stressed the consultation was in its early stages and that no decision had been made, but said it was a measure being considered as part of the social distancing review ordered by Johnson when he set out the roadmap for easing restrictions. A separate review is also looking at how Covid certification could work in practice.