While residents of England, Wales and Northern Ireland enjoy a relaxation on restrictions from today, questions are being raised on how the nation can cull a third wave of COVID-19. Government representatives have been discussing the implementation of COVID status certification – or “Vaccine Passports” – but what does this actually mean, and how can we expect this to affect our day-to-day lives in post-lockdown Britain? Sebastian Wieneke explains all, and gives his own thoughts on the issue.
What is a COVID passport, and what does their implementation mean for me?
In principle, implementation of a COVID passport scheme in the U.K. would require people to be “checked” for coronavirus before being allowed to enter non-essential retail/ hospitality and leisure. Three factors will be considered in this check:
- Your vaccine status – have you been vaccinated against COVID-19?
- If not, can you produce a recent negative COVID test?
- Have you developed a natural immunity to the virus due to previously being infected?
The Government has said that COVID passports will never be required for some settings such as essential shops, public services and public transport. Those “for whom vaccination is not advised and repeat testing is difficult” will also be exempt from the rule.
Opposition to COVID Passports
A broad, bipartisan coalition of more than 70 Members of Parliament have voiced their opposition to the implementation of COVID passports/status certification in England. Opponents to the scheme have called it “dangerous, discriminatory and counterproductive”. Although Boris Johnson has made it clear that there will be no legal requirement for a COVID passport for entry before every adult has been offered the jab, the Government has confirmed that individual businesses have a right to deny entry to people without valid COVID status certification from the 12th of April – as long as they don’t break existing equality and discrimination laws.
In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s today programme, Labour Peer Baroness Chakrabarti made her thoughts on the matter very clear, voicing her concerns that the move could create a “checkpoint Britain”. She described participation in the local community as a “fundamental (human) right”, and that putting policing power (of vaccine status) in the hands of “every bouncer or unscrupulous boss” could pave the way for institutional corruption and bullying.
Some also wanted to know if the rules could be used by employers to force workers to get the jab. Justice secretary Robert Buckland suggested that although it could be written into contracts for future employees, it is unlikely that current workers would be made to get the vaccine at the behest of their boss. It should be noted that this also may not be the case, as discrimination lawyers argue that there is reason for someone not to get the vaccine (pregnant women, or those with compromised immune system are advised not to get vaccinated). Mass testing is also a viable alternative to stopping the spread of coronavirus in the workplace, so total vaccination may not be required.
Support for COVID Passports
Supporters of the scheme have argued that it would speed up the return to normal life in the UK, supporting businesses which have been forced to close for a long period of time and aiding the nation’s economic recovery. It is also hoped that COVID status certification may improve uptake of the vaccine, providing an incentive for those who may be more sceptical about getting the jab.
Large events such as festivals, sports games and theatre productions could easily require a covid status certification, like one would check for a ticket before entry. This would reduce the virus’s potential to spread in the second half of 2021, as the newly re-opened UK takes its first, uneasy steps. In the months to follow, it is essential that the rate of infection is not allowed to spiral out of control, as this could pose the risk of swamping the NHS. With the potential for the country to be fully re-opened by as early as June, Britain is faring much better than their continental cousins. Many countries on the European mainland are currently struggling against a third resurgence of the virus, with some being forced to go back into a national lockdown. If implemented properly, a COVID passport scheme would play an important role in ensuring that the UK’s third lockdown will indeed be its final one.
As we near the hopeful end of curtailment of free movement in the UK, perhaps we should consider the potential cost of exercising personal freedoms. Surely it could be argued that COVID status checks are a welcome alternative to the further stalling of everyday life, that we’ve already put up with for far too long?
No easy answer
Despite criticism, the Government has announced its intentions to move ahead with the COVID status certification scheme. It has been insisted that the move will have a time limit, although a clear deadline for when COVID passports would no longer be required has not been announced. Since getting a vaccine may become a bi-annual/annual ritual, like getting a flu jab is for some, there is potential for status checks to be in place in some form for years to come.
Unfortunately, there is no simple solution. While there are valid concerns about privacy, personal autonomy and potential for the rule to be abused, the alternative would undoubtedly cause case numbers – and therefore deaths – to rise. In this time of national crisis, it is of the utmost importance for the British people to be united against the threat of a third wave: a reality currently being faced by many on the Continent and around the world. We as a population must be prepared to hear out the individuals and communities voicing their concerns about the scheme and encourage the Government to address them.
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Article edited by Connor Wade – Politics Editor