Vaccine passports generate hate and division, COVID expert warns

 A woman enjoys a drink on a warm sunny morning in a beer garden of a pub in London.
According to the Met Office, warm weather is forecasted for the next few days in the south east of England. (Photo by Dinendra Haria / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)
A Sage adviser has warned any requirement of vaccine passports for activities such as going to the pub will cause 'hate and division'. (PA)

A Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) adviser has warned coronavirus vaccine passports will “generate hate and division”.

Prof Stephen Reicher said that while vaccine passports are likely to be viewed as acceptable for international travel, they will be a controversial "distraction" if required domestically, for example to attend a football match or go to a pub or restaurant.

While vaccine passports are not currently required in the UK, the government is yet to confirm if they will become a legal requirement for certain non-essential activities once all adults have been offered a first dose of the jab. The government’s target date for this is the end of July.

Prof Reicher told MPs and peers at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus on Tuesday: “Right now, I think the key strategies we need [are] to get everybody vaccinated and to make public spaces safe.

Watch: Government exploring use of vaccine passports for live events in UK (from Thursday)

“Vaccine passports generate hate, controversy [and] division at a time when we need clarity, unity and everybody to be singing from the same hymn sheet.

“In some ways they are counter-productive, in some ways they are a distraction. They are not helping us move forward at this point in time.”

Prof Reicher, a psychologist who is a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours, which advises Sage, said younger people and Black people are more likely than the general population to be opposed to such a requirement.

"So the danger is that we are alienating precisely those groups where vaccine take-up isn't as high, where we should be doing more to engage with them."

Prof John Drury, a social psychologist at the University of Sussex, warned of vaccine passports that "by definition they exclude people and it’s likely that some groups will be excluded more than other groups".

“There’s lots of evidence that the public do support them for some areas of activity, international travel. Live events I’m not so sure, but certainly not for others like going to the pub, going to the shops, and certainly not for work.”

However, a YouGov survey carried out last month suggested the public is broadly supportive of some sort of certification being introduced to allow venues to remove restrictions.

Some 61% of respondents supported "COVID certificates" – which would include vaccine information but also whether someone has recently tested negative for the virus or has immunity from a previous infection – while 29% of people opposed them.

They were happiest for COVID certificates to be used in music festivals and sports stadiums (62% for) and least happy for them to be used in non-essential retail shops (36% for).

NHS app may not be ready

It comes as Downing Street admitted the NHS app may not be ready to be used as a vaccine passport when international travel resumes, and that “another approach” may be needed.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps has previously said the app, which is currently used to book medical appointments and order repeat prescriptions, will display evidence that someone has been vaccinated or recently tested.

But Boris Johnson's official spokesman indicated officials were working on alternative plans when international travel resumes, which is expected on 17 May.

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“[Shapps] set out the approach we are looking to take," the spokesman said on Tuesday.

“Obviously we will be able to confirm ahead of the 17th at the earliest what measures are used for those initial countries that are available for travel, be it the app or another approach.”

The spokesman added: “There are other routes to achieving the same end goal. We are working on the app at the moment, at pace, to have it ready and we will be able to confirm ahead of the 17th at the earliest what approaches we will be using.”

Watch: How England is leaving lockdown