England Reverses Course on Vaccine Passports

Isabelle Agustin
Staff Writer

On September 12, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his decision to scrap the introduction of vaccine passports. Johnson revealed this in his plans on how to manage COVID-19 in the winter months, according to Reuters

The decision to not implement vaccine passports seemed to many a complete U-turn on the government’s part. In early September, Vaccine Minister Nadhim Zahawi had emphasized that vaccine passports would be necessary to keep large venues open.  However, this change in tone was likely chosen for a multitude of reasons. 

BBC News explains that a vaccine passport could have been detrimental for night life and music industry in England. Both the Night Times Industries Association and the Music Venue Trust welcomed Johnson’s decision, acknowledging a hope for economic recovery. Political and social backlash to the initial decision to implement a vaccine passport was apparent from all sides. The Washington Post reports concerns from the Conservative Party that the mandate would serve as a hinderance to the economy and a violation of fundamental rights, as well as Liberal Democrats worrying that it would prove to be divisive and expensive. Sasha Lord, Greater Manchester’s nighttime economy adviser, went as far as to describe the vaccine passports as “discriminatory,” according to Politico.

Elaborating on this somewhat relaxed plan of action, Health Minister Sajid Javid said that he did not anticipate more lockdowns and that the government would rely on vaccines and testing to assist the public rather than vaccine passports. However, vaccine passports may not be left completely out of the question. The Associated Press reports that the British government has shelved the idea of vaccine passports for now but could reconsider the decision if COVID-19 cases rise exponentially once again. Javid told the BBC, “We’ve looked at it properly and, whilst we should keep it in reserve as a potential option, I’m pleased to say that we will not be going ahead with plans for vaccine passports.” He denied the idea that the government was “running scared” on the policy after criticism. Instead, he described that the passports were not needed because of other factors in the “wall of defense”, including high vaccine uptake, testing, surveillance, and new treatments.

There have been overarching criticisms on Johnson since the announcement of his COVID-19 management plans. The Washington Post reports on the precarious position Johnson’s government is in, as multiple policy reversals and abrupt U-turns have eroded the public’s trust. 

Conservative MPs remain wary that the government is simply pausing its introduction of vaccine passports. Mark Harper, the chair of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, told The Guardian: “They shouldn’t be kept in reserve – they are pointless, damaging and discriminatory.” Stephen Reicher, a government advisor, said that he hoped ministers had shelved the vaccine passports plan based on the scientific arguments against it, but admitted: “I don’t believe that, sadly it’s probably politics.” Adding to this concern, many are bracing themselves for a difficult winter, for flu season threatens to increase the strain on the country’s health care system alongside COVID-19 booster shot rollout according to The New York Times

The Washington Post reports that 65 percent of the population in England is fully immunized; however, vaccination rates among young people are lower than those of older demographics. While COVID-19 cases have dropped since July, England is still reporting more than 20,000 new cases per day.

Around the world, vaccine passports are being discussed as a possible tool to encourage people to get vaccines, as they allow vaccinated individuals to return to a degree of normalcy. France and Italy both adopted such mandates and saw a decline in COVID-19 rates and, in Italy’s case, a rise in internal tourism. Conversely, other nations, such as Russia and the United States are using a more hands-off approach – putting the burden on private employers to require vaccinations. 

Johnson’s COVID-19 policy only applies to England. According to BBC News, the rest of the United Kingdom’s approaches on passports vary. Wales is considering adopting vaccine passports. People in Scotland will be required to show proof of full vaccination to get into nightclubs and many large events starting in October. Northern Ireland is not currently considering such passport measures.

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