First they were “discriminatory” and wrong. Then the government started talks on them.
Yesterday Boris Johnson ’s deputy suggested you’d need them to go to the supermarket – but today the PM contradicted him and said you won’t need them for the pub.
When it comes to ‘vaccine passports’, you’d be forgiven for being pretty confused lately.
Will we have them or not? Will they be from government or private firms? Will they help me go to the pub or get a job? And will they be legal?
With one in four UK adults already getting their first dose, these questions are going to become crucial very quickly.
In some ways it’s quite simple.
Internationally, it’s a yes. The UK government is looking at a scheme to let Brits prove they’ve had the jab, in order to get into foreign countries.
Domestically, it’s a no. Boris Johnson today insisted the government has no plans for a vaccine passport to let you go to a pub or supermarket, or do a certain job.
But in other ways it’s very, very complicated.
Some firms have already said they’ll only hire people who’ve had the vaccine, and ministers have admitted private venues have the power to stop certain people coming in.
So even if the government doesn’t do anything, vaccine passports could become a major part of our lives.
Matt Hancock today admitted the whole issue is a “live question” and he’s not wrong. So here’s where we are so far with where the UK stands.
Will the UK have vaccine passports?
It depends what you mean exactly.
As explained above, the UK will have a certification scheme of some kind to let Brits show they’ve had the jab.
But this would be aimed at international travellers – because other countries are likely to demand this information.
It could also come in the form of a paper certificate rather than some kind of full “passport” which you carry around in your pocket or on a smartphone app.
The UK government insists it has no plans for a vaccine passport scheme to be used domestically.
Here’s where it gets complicated though. Private firms are already working on their own schemes, and they could slip into common use even if not backed by government.
When we talk about vaccine “passports” below, what we really mean is the act of having to prove you’ve had a vaccine, regardless of what format it comes in.
OK, so, will I need one to travel?
Yes, this is by far the most likely scenario.
Once it’s no longer illegal to go on holiday, Brits will want to escape lockdown by heading to sun-kissed beaches abroad.
But they may well find the countries they’re heading to are in a very different Covid position to the UK, and are demanding proof that holidaymakers have been vaccinated.
Matt Hancock said the UK is working on a system to give this proof, like people already can with a yellow fever certificate.
He told LBC Radio: “There are some countries around the world who are saying that in order to travel there in the future… you’ll have to show you have been vaccinated.
“So we want to make sure Brits can do that and therefore can show their vaccination status in a vaccine certificate of some kind.
“We’re not, we haven’t got any plans for the introduction of this domestically. But we are of course working with international partners.”
Spain’s foreign minister today said Brits hoping for a sunshine getaway on the Costa del Sol could be “fast-tracked”.
Arancha Gonzalez told the BBC: “There could be some sort of fast-track for people who have gotten their vaccine and can prove it with vaccine certification, where mobility would be easier because they would be in the lower-risk category.
“This is the scheme that Spain together with a group of other countries are working on.”
Will I need one to go to the pub?
Here’s where it gets complicated.
The UK government has absolutely no plans for a vaccine passport to let you go to the pub.
Boris Johnson said today: “What I don’t think we will have in this country is, as it were, vaccination passports to allow you to go to, say, the pub or something like that.”
But pubs are private businesses and may choose to impose their own entry rules, regardless of what government does.
Asked if people could have to prove their status to go to the cinema, Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said: “Well, it’s obviously up to businesses what they do.
“But at the moment we don’t yet have the evidence of the effect of the vaccines on transmission. It’s much better, as the PM quite rightly focused on, that you look at rapid testing. That’s the way forward.”
Michael Gove said in December: “Of course, individual businesses have the capacity to make decisions about who they will admit and why.”
And Boris Johnson said last week: “When we’re in that different world… then all kinds of apps and all kinds of possibilities will be open to us.”
Will I need one to go to the supermarket?
No – the answer to this one is basically the same as pubs.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Sunday that needing a bit of paper to go to the supermarket “hasn’t been ruled out” and is “under consideration”.
But a No10 source later slapped down Mr Raab’s comments, saying: “It is categorically not something we’re doing. That is not going to happen, and not something we are considering.”
Will I need one to do my job?
Again, this one is difficult.
The government insists there are no plans to have a state-run vaccine passport scheme, allowing you into certain jobs.
But some firms have already said they will ban employees who don’t get the vaccine, regardless of what the government says.
There are particular concerns about social care, just two thirds of whose workers have had a first dose so far.
Care home firm Barchester said last month: “Our current position is that we are will not hire someone who has refused to have the vaccine on non-medical grounds.
“We have not said that we will sack staff who refuse the vaccine on non-medical grounds; instead we have brought in behavioural nudges which we hope will encourage staff to be cognisant of the responsibility we have to protect our residents and relatives.
“Staff can make their own choice about whether to have the vaccine but we strongly encourage it.”
Pimlico Plumbers boss Charlie Mullins has said he’ll rewrite contracts to require employees to get the vaccine, adding: “If people don’t want the vaccine, let them sit at home and not have a normal life.”
He predicted that in five or six months, “to go into a bar or cinema, or go on a plane, you have to have a vaccine”.
How does mass testing come into it?
Brits could get rapid Covid tests before going clubbing or to the theatre, Boris Johnson has predicted. This could be an alternative to the tricky issue of demanding vaccine status.
The Prime Minister suggested the nation’s surviving nightclubs will need to take a new approach when they finally reopen after more than a year of shutdown.
Ministers are aiming to offer a first vaccine dose to all UK adults by September – but even that will not wipe out coronavirus because the vaccine cannot be 100% effective.
Rapid ‘lateral flow’ tests are now widely used by firms and in the NHS despite concerns that they miss many positive cases
He said: “For the purposes of this country and doing things within the domestic UK economy, we’ll look at everything.
“But what we’re thinking of at the moment is more of a route that relies on mass vaccination, and as you know we intend to vaccinate all the adults in the country by the autumn, plus lateral flow testing
“Rapid testing, for those bits that have been the toughest nuts to crack, as it were, such as nightclubs or theatres. Those parts of the economy we couldn’t get open last year.
“I think that will be the route that we go down and that businesses will go down.”
It’s not yet known how the system would actually work or whether people would have to pay. But a system of sending tests with people’s concert tickets has been discussed before.
What does the government say?
So far the government has been very quiet on what happens if a private firm bans someone who hasn’t had the jab.
It’s likely they don’t want to get involved in the political maelstrom – especially if it’s seen to encourage anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists – and will let any disputes be settled in court instead.
But it’s also true that the government is trying to put all its PR focus into highlighting the benefits of the vaccine, not talking about what happens if people don’t get it.
Matt Hancock said today “our focus is on encouraging people to come forward”.
The Health Secretary added: “What we want to do, and what we’ve so far been successful in doing, is making sure this whole debate about vaccine is framed, rightly, in the real positive benefits that vaccines can bring.”
No10 say it is an important principle that the vaccine is optional, not mandatory.
What do private firms say?
Some private firms are already developing technology that could be used as part of a vaccine passport scheme.
Andrew Bud, chief executive of iProov, told The Times he was in “detailed discussions” with public and private organisations, for example about “rotating staff in medical and social care environments”.
He admitted a scheme would come with “ethical challenges” but said: “Think how much safer you will make communities of people if only vaccinated people are allowed to physically mix with those communities.
“Imagine how much safer it would be if schools could allow people whose parents have been vaccinated to come back into the school. Imagine in social care environments, how much safer it would be if relatives were vaccinated.”
Is it legal for private firms to ban the unvaccinated?
This is an open question, and unless the government passes a specific law it could end up being settled in the courts.
It could also depend on the specific circumstances of each case, according to Elizabeth McEneny, a Senior Consultant at law firm CM Murray.
In a useful blog last month, she wrote that bosses may be on safer legal grounds forcing healthcare workers than, say, electricians or office workers to get the vaccine.
As well as this, there are competing areas of law.
On the one hand, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 says bosses must take “reasonable steps” to ensure the safety of their staff. This could include any instruction for staff to get the jab, if it is deemed “reasonable”.
On the other hand, though, there is discrimination law. Bringing in a vaccine rule before the rollout finishes could be age discrimination. In her piece, Ms McEneny added: “In theory, an anti-vaccination stance could attract protection under the Equality Act 2010 by amounting to a protected philosophical belief.
“An employee taking such a stance would need to establish that their belief was genuinely held, cogent, serious and worthy of respect in a democratic society.”