Could the Government be headed for a defeat over ‘COVID passports’?

By Imogen Shaw

After several weeks of mounting speculation, Boris Johnson confirmed at yesterday’s press conference that the Government is considering the introduction of COVID status certificates, with the accompanying documents outlining that they could be used across hospitality, live performance venues and mass events. 

Following his statement, however, the proposal for what would in effect be domestic ‘vaccine passports’ has been cast further into doubt as Labour today confirmed its opposition to the initiative. Labour leader Keir Starmer had last week hinted that the party would resist the proposals, stating that he felt “British sense” would run counter to the introduction of a domestic vaccine passport. 

The opposition’s hardened stance poses more of a threat to any potential vote on the proposals than it otherwise might, given that more than 40 Tory MPs have signed a letter which describes vaccine passports as “divisive and discriminatory”. If that number were to hold and if the rest of the opposition parties joined Labour in opposing the measure, it is far from clear that it would be a vote the Government could win.

Despite reports that Cabinet Office Secretary Michael Gove has promised MPs a vote on the initiative once it has been more fully fleshed out, the Prime Minister would not be drawn on this during yesterday’s statement. 

Chair of the lockdown-sceptic COVID Recovery Group and leader of the potential Tory rebellion, Mark Harper MP, is demanding guarantees that the measure will be brought to a vote, warning that “COVID Status Certification will lead to a two-tier Britain”. His concerns echo loudly across mainstream press outlets including the Telegraph and the Daily Mail, giving a taste of the media reaction the Government might expect if it does end up putting this to a vote before June.

The Government’s major issue here is that the proposal, as civil liberties debates are wont to do, has managed to unite against it a range of political actors whose concerns rarely overlap. Even prior to Labour’s announcement today, a group of over 70 MPs across the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems had already joined forces to oppose the plan – from committed Thatcherites to long-term members of the Socialist Campaign Group.

There are those who are determined that the restrictions imposed on our freedoms over the last year do not linger past when they are needed, and who fear that the introduction of what could be considered a mandatory ‘bioidentity’ card would be difficult to reverse once it has been legislated for.

There are also those who view the measure as an unfair imposition on younger people, who in the majority of cases have made significant personal sacrifices over the last year in order to protect the health of an older generation far more vulnerable to serious illness from COVID. There are fears that for this group, vaccine certificates may be a very hard sell, especially if introduced when younger people have not yet been offered their second dose.

Joining them are those who have serious concerns that the introduction of vaccine passports could further entrench and exacerbate existing inequalities, given that statistics have demonstrated that people from different ethnic groups have on average different levels of vaccine hesitancy.

Then there is the question of exemptions for pregnant people and those who are not recommended to take the vaccine for medical reasons. The layers of complication, the potential for discrimination and the concerns that this is a symptom of eroding civil liberties make the policy area a legislative minefield.

If the Government decides it must push ahead with a vote on domestic vaccine passports, it will need to be prepared to argue its case on a wide range of fronts. Coming up with a compromise to satisfy the concerns of the myriad and distinct groups who have already raised their voice in opposition could well become a serious challenge in the weeks and months ahead.