Immunity Passports Are Back On The Agenda, But Can Boris Johnson Persuade His MPs?

Blair says they’re "inevitable", but that only fuels backbench suspicions.
Could Boris Johnson get plans for an “immunity passport” through the Commons, if Labour decide against it?
Could Boris Johnson get plans for an “immunity passport” through the Commons, if Labour decide against it?

No.10 is quietly pleased at the reaction to Boris Johnson’s “roadmap” for exiting lockdown. Snap opinion polls showed public support and on the whole Tory backbenchers have been muted in their dissent.

But what is slowly dawning on MPs of all parties is that the “COVID-19 Response – Spring 2021” document (to give it its formal title) isn’t so much an AA-style atlas as a medieval map with lots of unchartered or dangerous territory.

And four key areas marked “Here Be Dragons” are the “reviews” announced. All cover important topics, but if any one of them is implemented badly they could seriously disrupt the government’s wider strategy. Social distancing rules and masks, overseas travel and open-air events, all have hidden perils.

Yet perhaps the most tricky of all is the review of “COVID-status certification”, and whether it could play a role in “reopening the economy, reducing restrictions on social contact and improving safety”.

The project will look at the ethical, equalities, privacy, legal and operational aspects of what are popularly called “immunity passports”. There was scant detail in the roadmap on the remit of this review or its exact timing of publication (other than it will be before June 21). While some form of international vaccine passport is seen as sensible, a domestic one is altogether trickier politically.

It was announced today that Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office will lead the work, and we began to also get the first clues as to what the project could involve. Perhaps most intriguing is the suggestion (as we reported HERE) of using the NHS App to carry evidence of negative tests and vaccinations that could then help people access events.

The NHS App, which is used to book appointments, would need some scaling up. It is different from the NHS Covid App, and has many fewer users. But it doesn’t have the same privacy issues as its better known cousin, because it is already used to let people see their medical records and shares results with GP databases.

To avoid the charge that it was somehow making vaccinations compulsory by the back door, the government is looking at using both vaccination records and negative Covid tests (probably a lateral flow test) as part of this new digital certification. Rather than focusing on vaccinations, it’s the rapid tests for Operation Moonshot access to live events that attracts some in Whitehall.

Government insiders believe owners of premises already have the legal discretion to pick and choose customers, as long as no discrimination laws are breached. The demand to show a “health certificate” could possibly fit that. Similarly, Chris Whitty’s remarks on Monday about a “professional expectation” to get a vaccination for NHS and care staff opens up at least the possibility of a “no jab, no job” policy.

Johnson himself notably ruled little out on Tuesday, saying that while “fervent libertarians” will oppose it, “other people will think there’s a case for it”. If a digital certificate was used not for public services but to reassure others who want a mask-free, cheek-by-jowl experience at the theatre or a football match, some in government think it can work.

There is already however a growing body of opposition. Some 177,000 people have signed a Commons e-petition opposing “Vaccine Passports”. Civil liberties groups like Liberty and Big Brother Watch are on the march, and some Tory lockdown sceptics are worried too. On the Zoom with the PM last night, Steve Baker forced Johnson into denying there was any hidden agenda with the review.

And given that Tony Blair has said some form of domestic or overseas health passport is now “inevitable”, that in itself has revived memories of the former PM’s ill-fated ID cards plans. Don’t forget that one of the most vigorous opponents of those plans was David Davis, one of the quieter lockdown sceptics but who can carry others with him.

Could Boris Johnson get plans for an “immunity passport” through the Commons, if Labour decide against it? Well, that brings us to the other broader issue of accountability and transparency that the roadmap raises. There will be just two parliamentary votes on the plans, a minor one to tweak regulations to allow people to sit down by March 29, and a bigger one to approve the entire regulations that will run until June 21.

The statutory instrument votes will be like previous ones, unamendable and therefore “all or nothing” in their nature (which makes it difficult for Keir Starmer to oppose). Yet there could be serious discontent that MPs will have just one big vote before Easter and then have no say at all for many weeks.

In fact, we learned from No.10 today a small but significant fact: instead of having statutory reviews of the lockdown measures every two weeks at present, the statutory reviews will take place every five weeks. Again, that will feel to many MPs in all parties like a reduction in accountability.

The mood of Tory MP wasn’t lightened either by today’s refusal by Gove and Matt Hancock of a formal invite by the Public Administration Select Committee to give evidence on “the data underpinning Covid-19 decisions”.

Add in Nicola Sturgeon’s decision today to opt for regional tiers that Johnson has ruled out, and (as I pointed out last night), it’s easy to see why there’s growing Tory backbench unease about the direction of travel – or lack of it. Immunity passports may be closer than ever, but the PM isn’t immune from the restless nature of his backbenches.


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