Why vaccine passports for pubs aren’t as controversial as some suggest

The idea that vaccine certificate decisions “may be up to landlords” has prompted fury – but is this an overreaction? 

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“Up to 60” Conservative MPs are threatening to vote against the government today (25 March) in a parliamentary vote on whether to extend emergency coronavirus legislation by another six months – well beyond the current provisional roadmap out of lockdown, and an extension which the rebel MPs want shortened.

But the news has been overshadowed partly because the rebels won’t win, because Labour is supporting the measures, and partly because there’s another story in town: the prospect of either “vaccine passports” or a negative coronavirus test being required for entry to the pub.

Boris Johnson told the Liaison Committee of MPs yesterday that he couldn’t rule out vaccine certification, and that vaccine passport decisions “may be up to landlords”. It has prompted fury from some Conservative backbenchers, from publicans, and from parts of the press.

The government is currently conducting two reviews, one into the feasibility and ethics of Covid status certification, and another into social distancing, led by Michael Gove and due to report in June. It is not altogether surprising that options around lateral flow testing and vaccine paperwork to allow pubs to end social distancing are under consideration, however unlikely they are to be implemented. 

[see also: Plans for Covid-19 vaccine passports may stoke intergenerational divides]

Ultimately, the government here faces a short-term challenge but not much of a long-term one. Pubs are provisionally due to open in England for customers seated indoors on 17 May. Restrictions on social contact (but not necessarily social distancing) are provisionally planned to be lifted on 21 June. But all adults in the UK aren’t due to have been offered a first dose of the vaccine until the end of July. The challenge until then is plain: before everyone has been offered a jab, it would be discriminatory to require proof of vaccination for entry to a pub, but offering rapid testing for the unvaccinated would require resources, and could deter young pub-goers to the point where it may be more of a drain on pubs than maintaining social distancing requirements. 

Even just by spelling out the challenge of Covid-status screening in the period before the end of July, you can imagine which way the government might lean on this question. But in the longer term, the government has more options and the stakes aren't so high. With most of the population vaccinated, requiring proof of vaccination will be less controversial, and instances where individuals are not screened for proof of vaccination will carry less inherent risk. Social distancing and other measures to reduce Covid risk (such as ventilation) are likely to remain in some form for a long time.

That takes us back to Boris Johnson's comment. In the future, it might well be for individual business owners in hospitality to decide whether to maintain their mitigating measures or to screen customers on arrival. Taking a long view, that makes sense, and maybe isn’t the controversial idea it is now being treated as. 

[see also: Why we shouldn't worry about vaccine passports]

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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