The government’s planned introduction of mandated vaccine passports – supposedly coming into force within the month – will have enormous implications for people across the country. The apparent start of the scheme is now just over three weeks away – and yet businesses, politicians and the public are all still in the dark about how this imposed system is going to work.
A powerful reason, you might think, for the government to come forward willingly, set out its plans in detail and fix a date for a definitive vote in parliament. It took my urgent question this afternoon, however, to drag Nadhim Zahawi to the House to give a half-hearted impression of an update. No detail was given and, crucially, no date for the necessary vote.
Time is running out. We cannot lose sight of the fact that an ID scheme of this kind opens the door to a major change in the relationship between the citizen and the state. Never before in peacetime has government in this country controlled where we can go, with whom and what to do in this way.
If the government believes this must change then at the very least, we must have a chance to vote on it. Major changes to individual rights deserve better than this twisty game-playing.
The case for vaccine passports, after all, is riddled with inconsistencies. Nightclubs have been open since July. How are such venues deemed safe in September but dens of disease in October? If they are safe today then we have to ask what the government expects to change between now and the end of the month.
On Monday, Zahawi told us that “60 per cent of people who have had two jabs will not become infected with the Delta variant and therefore cannot infect someone else, although 40 per cent will and can.”
These are quite remarkable statistics. The 40 per cent figure highlights one of the biggest dangers with the whole idea of vaccine passports – you create a false sense of confidence. People will go into large social gatherings where they assume they will be safe from infection when in fact they may not be.
There will always be some who cannot be vaccinated. If entry to nightclubs or events is to be dependent on demonstrating vaccination they will be excluded, which is why human rights organisations have voiced concerns about potential discrimination.
The practical challenges are substantial as well. A study by the Night Time Industries Association found that 69 per cent of night-time economy companies view vaccine passports as having a negative impact on business. Seventy per cent said they were not necessary for opening their business. We know Boris Johnson’s views on business – but you might think there would be one or two ministers who could take an interest in these details.
Given this plethora of moral, practical and political problems, it is no wonder that ministers have flailed for months. In July, the health secretary told parliament: “As we move away from regulations, there will no longer be a legal requirement for any establishment to have Covid vaccine certification.”
Whatever has changed between then and now, one thing remains constant: we must have a vote before any Covid pass scheme comes into force. Major changes to our society and our rights demand nothing less.
Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on home affairs, Northern Ireland and constitutional reform — and the party’s MP for Orkney and Shetland