A rare cross-party rebellion is underway in the United Kingdom after more than 70 MPs and peers signed a joint statement declaring they will oppose internal COVID-19 vaccine passports.
The British government is considering making vaccine certification mandatory for people to access venues such as shops, pubs and nightclubs, as the country begins to ease its third set of lockdown restrictions.
No final decision has yet been taken, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to give the go-ahead to vaccine certificate trials at theatres and stadiums on Monday.
This morning a consortium of MPs and peers, including 41 members of the ruling Conservative party, issued a joint statement condemning the proposals.
“We oppose the divisive and discriminatory use of COVID status certification to deny individuals access to general services, businesses or jobs,” the pledge read.
The declaration was published with the backing of civil liberties groups Liberty, Big Brother Watch, the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI) and Privacy International.
Prominent signatories included former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and some 40 members of the COVID Recovery Group: an informal alliance of rebel backbenchers who voted against the UK’s second lockdown.
Why are UK legislators against a certification scheme?
This level of cross-party agreement on a single issue is unusual in the United Kingdom and the signatories’ reason for signing varies from one party to the next.
Some have expressed concern over the potentially dangerous precedent they believe COVID-19 vaccine passports would set for civil rights. Ed Davey MP, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “As we start to get this virus properly under control, we should start getting our freedoms back. Vaccine passports, essentially Covid ID cards, take us in the other direction.”
Baroness Shami Chakrabarti, a Labour Party peer and former director of Liberty, said: “International travel is a luxury but participating in your own community is a fundamental right. Internal Covid passports are an authoritarian step too far.”
Others have expressed concern that COVID-19 vaccine passports could create a “two-tier” system by entrenching existing inequalities. Marginalised groups in the UK who may face barriers to accessing the vaccine, such as migrants and asylum seekers, are considered to be most at risk.
Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “COVID passes would be the first attempt at segregation in Britain for many decades. We are in real danger of becoming a check-point society where anyone from bouncers to bosses could demand to see our papers.”
The plans have already been met with backlash from parts of the UK’s entertainment and hospitality sector, with pub landlords and restaurant owners saying they could “scupper” plans to reopen in April.
Former Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage has also weighed in to brand the plans a “dystopian nightmare”. In a radio appearance last month, he demanded to know: "What happens if I go to the pub with my son but because he's only 30 has not yet been vaccinated? Do we have to show our dates of birth?"
How far advanced are the plans?
More than 31 million people in the UK have already received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Under the government’s current “roadmap” for exiting lockdown, pubs will be allowed to serve people outdoors from April 12 and cinemas and theatres will reopen their doors in mid-May, with all legal restrictions set to be lifted on June 21.
On Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper that businesses would have more “confidence” if they knew their customers had been vaccinated.
He has instructed senior minister Michael Gove to review the possible ethical implications of such a scheme, the results of which are due to be published on Monday ahead of a final decision.
Culture minister Oliver Dowden has also said vaccine passports could be used as a “tool in the short term” to reopen theatres and stadiums.
It is not yet clear whether UK opposition parties would vote against the proposals, but Labour leader Keir Starmer has speculated that the “British instinct” would be against them.
What does the British public think?
In fact, the “British instinct” on domestic vaccine certification has proved difficult to pin down. A recently-published Ipsos MORI survey of more than 8,300 UK residents found that 68 per cent were in favour of vaccine passports to go to the theatre or an indoor concert.
Another 63 per cent said they supported vaccine certification gym use or leisure centre use, 62 per cent for entering pubs or restaurants and 61 per cent for attending music or sports events. In total, 58 percent of respondents supported their use on public transport.
But the poll also found that younger people, ethnic minority Britons and people in more deprived areas expressed greater levels of concern about the legal and ethical issues, and were less likely to support their use.
Another survey of 2,023 British adults conducted in late March by research body the Ada Lovelace Institute found that 33 per cent of respondents were still undecided. Some 55 per cent said they worried concern that a passport scheme could be discriminatory.
“There is substantial public concern that vaccine passports will public confidence,” the Institute said in its summary, “with particular concern about fairness among the majority of members of the public. Developers and governments considering the roll-out and implementation of this technology should exercise caution.”