How is the government in such a tangle over nightclubs and vaccine passports?

Ministers are caught between their desired unlocking timetable and the constraints of the vaccine programme.

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Boris Johnson heralded “freedom day” from lockdown yesterday, urging caution as coronavirus cases soar and England lifts almost all legal restrictions. Having reopened nightclubs hours earlier for the first time since March 2020, the Prime Minister announced that from the end of September nightclubs and similar venues will require proof of double vaccination to allow entry.

Yes, that’s right: nightclubs are open again, and you can attend them now with no proof of vaccination, but the Prime Minister who reopened them is warning about the “continuing risk posed by nightclubs” and will, from September, require them to use vaccine passports, which he previously said he was against, for entry. Just not right now. 

Why is the government waiting until September? If the Prime Minister acknowledges the risk and Patrick Vallance is warning that club nights are “potential super-spreading events”, why leave the clubs open without mitigating measures until then?

The simple truth is that the government is caught between its desired unlocking timetable and the constraints of the vaccination programme. As I wrote in March, the trouble with vaccine passports for the government is that it can’t implement them for young people when they have not yet offered them a second dose, which they won’t do until September. As well as being discriminatory, with the potential for a legal challenge, implementing vaccine passports now would have resulted in young people effectively being barred from pubs, clubs, and so on, until September, which would somewhat defeat the point of reopening in the first place.

So why not wait to reopen later? That is the government’s entire problem: the point at which the vaccination programme is completed (mid-autumn) is not the point at which the government deems it best to open up (now, in the summer). Ministers reason that the NHS would struggle with the “exit wave” in the winter months, and want the wave to happen now in the summer, before the vaccination programme is complete.

The policy on clubbing is the encapsulation of this tension: the government wants cases to spike now, rather than later, and wants to deliver on its promise of “freedom” to voters and Conservative MPs, but it is deeply nervous about the extent to which the public will claim these freedoms and how bad things will get, both in terms of the economic cost of large numbers of people isolating and hospitalisations and deaths. It can’t even implement some of the mitigating measures that would make sense, because it hasn't finished offering second doses to everyone yet. The government is taking a huge risk, and it knows it.

Instead of approaching the unlocking with a careful, cautious approach that it can own with confidence, the government has gone bold, but is doing so with palpable fear.

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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