In Depth

Should pubs, cinemas and airlines require Covid ‘vaccine passports’?

Critics voice privacy concerns as minister leading vaccination rollout says leisure venues may turn away customers who haven’t had jab

Pubs, restaurants and cinemas will begin to reopen across the UK this week following the end of lockdown as the government steps up plans for the mass rollout of Covid-19 vaccinations.

But the minister in charge of overseeing the vaccine programme has triggered controversy by suggesting that while having the jabs will not be compulsary, leisure venues including sports stadiums may turn away customers who haven’t been innoculated against the coronavirus.

What has been proposed?

In his first interview since being appointed as minister for Covid vaccine deployment, Nadhim Zahawi said yesterday that while no one will be forced to get immunised, the government would send a “strong message”  that “this is the way we return the whole country to normal, and so it’s good for your family, it’s good for your community, it’s good for your country”.

Asked whether “vaccine passports” might be used as a means to get people back into shops and hospitality venues after a vaccine is licensed, Zahawi told the BBC that “we are looking at the technology, and, of course, a way of people being able to inform their GP that they have been vaccinated”.

Referring to the NHS Track and Trace app, he added: “I think you’ll probably find that restaurants and bars and cinemas and other venues, sports venues, will probably also use that system as they have done with the app.

“I think that in many ways, the pressure will come from both ways. From service providers who’ll say: ‘Look, demonstrate to us that you have been vaccinated.’”

Zahawi’s comments came days after Test and Trace boss Dido Harding proposed similar plans to introduce immunity passports in a bid to return to normality.

Harding told an event organised by the Health Service Journal that her hope “in the future to be able to have a single record as a citizen of your test results and whether you’ve been vaccinated”.

However, following Zahawi’s interview, Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove attempted to distance the government from the proposal. 

“I certainly am not planning to introduce any vaccine passports, and I don’t know anyone else in government who is,” he told Sky News.

How would the system work? 

Businesses and football stadiums could ask customers for proof that they have been vaccinated on entry, in the same way that people are being asked to check in using QR codes.

Similar systems are “already used by some countries to see whether people have protection against yellow fever or polio”, The Guardian reports.

Non-governmental bodies in both the UK and abroad have also floated the idea of vaccine passports. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced last week that “it is in the final phase of development for what it hopes will be universally accepted documentation that in turn could boost confidence among wary travellers”, says Washington D.C.-based news site The Hill.

In a statement yesterday about the digital health pass, IATA boss Alexandre de Juniac said: “Testing is the first key to enable international travel without quarantine measures. The second key is the global information infrastructure needed to securely manage, share and verify test data matched with traveller identities in compliance with border control requirements.”

Australian national airline Qantas has already said that once a Covid-19 vaccine is a readily available, proof that international travellers have received the jab will be a non-negotiable condition of flight - and other carriers are expected to follow suit.

What are the arguments for and against a ‘no jab, no entry’ policy?

Professor Julian Savulescu, director of the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities at Oxford University, argues that “it is unethical not to offer immunity passports”, the Daily Mirror reports.

“The sole ground for restricting liberty in a liberal society is when a person represents a threat to others,” Savulescu said. “That is the justification for quarantine, isolation and lockdown.”

But government adviser Professor Robert Dingwall, of Nottingham Trent University told the Daily Mail that the “idea of vaccine passports generally has been condemned by bioethicists, and there are concerns about medical privacy and a long history of abuse of these kinds of measures”.

“There was no need for the minister to discuss the possibility of businesses asking for vaccination status before vaccines are even available to those who want them,” he added. “This may end up fuelling anti-vaxxers.”

That view was echoed by Dr Ana Beduschi of the University of Exeter Law School, who says that health passports pose “essential questions for the protection of data privacy and human rights”.

Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns at human rights group Liberty, has also warned that “immunity passports raise more questions than they answer”.

“We don’t know how our privacy would be protected, who will have access to our data, or how it could be used in conjunction with other information,” says Grant.

He adds: “Once immunity passports have been created their use could be expanded, resulting in people who don’t have immunity potentially being blocked from essential public services, work or housing – setting a dangerous precedent, with the most marginalised among us hardest hit.”

Critics have also pointed out that scientists do not yet know how long immunity will last.

But not all of the sceptics appear to be completely ruling out the proposal. Law professor Beduschi concludes: “Ministers must strike an adequate balance between protecting the rights and freedoms of all individuals and safeguarding public interests while managing the effects of the pandemic.” 

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