Boris Johnson sought to calm fears over the possible introduction of coronavirus health certificates as publicans criticised plans which could see landlords demanding to see drinkers’ papers before letting them have a pint.
The Prime Minister acknowledged the “moral complexities” around a domestic vaccine passport scheme and suggested that it might only be possible to introduce one after all adults had been offered a vaccine at the end of July.
The Government will say more on the possible use of Covid status certificates in early April, and suggested they could also be based on whether individuals have developed antibodies through infection, as well as vaccinations and negative tests.
But landlords rejected their use after his earlier suggestion it could be up to them to decide whether to screen customers’ certificates on entry, ahead of fresh details emerging of a possible incentive for pubs to adopt the measure.
Mr Johnson defended his credentials as a “freedom lover” as Tory MPs criticised the Government’s “oppressive” and “draconian” coronavirus legislation.
Measures to implement Mr Johnson’s “road map” out of lockdown, which will see England’s restrictions eased in a series of stages over the coming months, were passed without a vote.
But a series of Tory MPs refused to back a six-month extension to wide-ranging emergency powers contained in the Coronavirus Act after Health Secretary Matt Hancock was unable to say whether they would definitely expire after that.
Some 76 MPs voted to oppose the extension of the laws, although the measure passed with a majority of 408.
Former minister Sir Desmond Swayne warned that the renewal of emergency coronavirus powers could lead to “total social control” and criticised the “oppressive legislation”.
Sir Graham Bracy, chairman of the influential backbench 1922 Committee, said: “The danger is the Government starts to believe that these fundamental civil liberties belong to ministers to grant to us or withhold.”
Mark Harper, the former chief whip who chairs the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group, said he was opposed to the Act’s “very significant draconian powers” being extended for a further six months.
Mr Hancock admitted he could not guarantee the six-month extension to the Act would be the last time MPs were asked to approve the continuation of the powers introduced when the pandemic hit.
“My preference would be yes, but given the last year, I think a prediction would be hasty,” he said.
Ahead of the vote, Mr Johnson defended the Government’s approach: “The libertarian in me is also trying to protect people’s fundamental right to life and their ability to live their lives normally.
“And the only way really to restore that for everybody is for us to beat the disease and the best path to freedom is down the cautious but irreversible road map that we’ve set out – that’s what the freedom lover wants.”
The unease of some Tory MPs has been heightened by speculation around the introduction of Covid status certificates, with hospitality industry figures also concerned about the implications.
The boss of the Shepherd Neame brewery and pub chain said that making jabs mandatory for entry to pubs is a “fairly poorly thought-out idea”, as trade bodies suggested the idea was “simply unworkable”.
Mr Johnson insisted “no decisions have been taken at all”, saying that there will be an update on the review into their possible use on either April 5 or 12, and said that “whatever happens” the April 12 reopening of pub gardens will be unaffected.
The Prime Minister said that “I do think there is going to be a role for certification”, though it is possible this will be limited to foreign travel.
“There are three basic components. There’s the vaccine, there’s your immunity you might have had after you’ve had Covid and there’s testing – they are three things that could work together,” Mr Johnson said.
But he acknowledged there are “moral complexities” and problems that must be addressed, raising concerns that pregnant women and those with medical reasons cannot be vaccinated.
“You might only be able to implement a thoroughgoing vaccination passport scheme, even if you wanted such a thing, in the context of when absolutely everybody had been offered a vaccine,” Mr Johnson added.
On Wednesday, the Prime Minister said it “may be up to individual publicans” whether they carry out health certificate checks on punters.
Jonathan Neame, the chief executive of Shepherd Neame, ruled out making vaccines mandatory for entry to his premises, warning bar staff could be “subject to intimidation”.
“This is fraught with difficulty, I think, and it is, in my view, a fairly poorly thought out idea at this stage,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of the UKHospitality trade body, said the plan is “simply unworkable” and the British Beer and Pub Association said the requirement would not be “appropriate or necessary”.
A Whitehall source told the PA news agency that landlords may be able to scrap social distancing if they check Covid health certificates on entry, in a move that would allow them to operate at much higher capacity.
Under suggestions being considered in the review, those who do not want to enforce the checks would be allowed to reopen but would have to ensure social distancing is maintained.
Meanwhile, the European Union’s leaders were meeting to decide whether to impose tougher restrictions on the export of vaccines from the bloc amid concerns about the relatively slow pace of vaccination in the 27 countries compared to the UK.
Mr Johnson said the UK is “going to keep working with our EU partners and our friends” as diplomatic efforts continue to avoid exports destined for the UK being kept by the bloc.
“One thing I am firmly libertarian about is free trade and I don’t want to see blockades of vaccines or of medicines, I don’t think that’s the way forward either for us or for any of our friends,” he told reporters.