The government’s policy on nightclubs was thrown into confusion yesterday, as less than 24 hours after opening them without restrictions, the Prime Minister said that vaccine passports would be required from September.
The move is being seen as a warning to the roughly 35% of 18–34-year-olds who have not yet taken up their offer of a first dose, that they could face being locked out of clubs unless they get themselves to a vaccination centre over the summer.
But questions were immediately asked about the public health logic for allowing nightclubs to re-open at all given rising case numbers and the potential for them to act as ‘super spreading events’ according to Chief Scientific Officer Sir Patrick Vallance. If clubs aren’t going to be safe in September without guaranteeing everyone is double jabbed, surely they aren’t safe now?
In truth the knot that the government has tied itself in is just the latest consequence of the two directions it has been pulled in throughout the pandemic: protecting public health and supporting the economy. It is, however, also the most high-profile example of the challenge of ending all legal restrictions before the end of the vaccine rollout, something that was always going to happen according to the government’s roadmap.
Given that reality, the only other alternative was to keep the clubs shut until all adults had been offered their second dose and the infrastructure for vaccine passports was up and running, something that the government would have been expected to pick up the bill for.
The politics facing the government are hazardous, not least because of repeated promises over recent months that vaccine passports would not be mandated. There will be plenty of Conservative MPs beyond the members of the COVID Recovery Group who will be deeply concerned about the risk of mission creep for vaccine passports into other parts of life. The government will have to go a long way to reassure them that this will not happen, given the scale and speed of their U-turn on requiring them for nightclubs.
All eyes will therefore be on Labour, with Sir Keir Starmer facing a big decision on whether to back the government on public health grounds or seize the opportunity of delivering an embarrassing defeat. In the meantime, Labour is likely to double down on criticisms of muddled messaging, the risks of allowing clubs to remain open until September, and questions about the workability of the plans and the longer-term impact on the night-time economy.
All this raises the potential that the government may end up privately hoping that the threat of being denied entry to nightclubs – and the spectre of vaccine passports being introduced in other settings – drives vaccination rates up among younger people over the summer so that it can drop the plans and attempt to claim victory.
Whether it works out that way will be determined by a combination of internal Conservative politics and external public pressure as cases look set to continue to rise over the summer.