POLITICS
12/02/2021 20:05 GMT | Updated 13/02/2021 08:42 GMT

Tony Blair Says Covid Vaccine Passports ‘Inevitable’ At Home And Abroad

Exclusive: Former PM warns the poorest will suffer most until countries agree digital document showing vaccination and test status.

Digital health passports will become “inevitable” in the UK and around the world as the public demand reassurance about coronavirus safety, Tony Blair has said.

Speaking to Radio 4’s Week in Westminster, the former Labour prime minister said that a document that combined vaccination and testing status would allow nations to defend themselves better against the virus.

Blair warned that the poorest at home and abroad were suffering most from continued lockdowns and urged Boris Johnson to use the UK’s hosting of the G7 summit to speed up the process of global cooperation on a standardised Covid-status “passport”.

He predicted that rapid coronavirus tests would become the norm at mass spectator events and the workplace as the public sought reassurance about safety at work and places of leisure.

The former premier also said the pandemic should be viewed as a “national security issue” for every country – and admitted that when he was in power dealing with bird flu he had failed to grasp the need to invest much greater sums in anti-virus resilience.

A Cabinet sub-committee met on Friday to discuss plans for a vaccine and testing certificates for when global travel resumes. Ministers want an internationally recognised system.

In his interview, Blair said that as vaccines rolled out across the world and countries moved to reopen their borders, digital health passports would be seen as an invaluable weapon in containing the spread of the virus.

“When you start to reopen your borders again, you’ll want to know the disease status of people coming into your country,” he said.

“Once vaccination really starts to be widespread, of course you’re going to ask for proof of what the vaccination status is and the reason for that is that the early evidence seems to be that if you’re vaccinated, you’re less likely to transmit the disease.

“And because of these new variants and because of the mutations that can occur, I think it’s just inevitable and therefore it’s best to start now on trying to devise common standards. If you start to do this on a vast scale, you’re going to need the technology that allows you to do it digitally.”

Blair, whose push for ID cards met with fierce civil liberties opposition when he was in office, suggested that a combined vaccine and test status document would have popular backing.

Pressed on whether there was a case for a domestic health passport and whether that may unfairly discriminate against some of the population, he said: “People look at this as if it’s a matter of what’s fair or unfair and of course fairness is an important component, but it’s also a matter of what is obvious.

“Suppose you were to go back into your workplace today, you would prefer to know that the people you were going back to work with had been tested. You would prefer to know that they’d been vaccinated when vaccination becomes available to the majority of the population. These things are just inevitable.”

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Boris Johnson and Tony Blair

Blair insisted that he could not see domestic health passports becoming mandatory, but said that the public would probably drive demand, just as they would with widespread use of rapid lateral flow tests to check if someone was negative or positive.

“I think it’s very difficult to make it actually compulsory. But I think there is again an inevitability about vaccination, enabling you to do certain things, and you know we’re not complete masters of this ourselves it’s a question of how the rest of the world is also going to look at it,” he said.

“I still think there’s a very, very strong case for using rapid, point-of-use, cheap antigen tests as an aid to this, not as a substitute for other measures, but as complementary to them.

“To come back to this issue of proof of status, I think it’s unlikely people will want to go to large events, unless they think they’re going to be mixing with people who at least have given some sort of proof of their status.”

Silkie Carlo, director of UK Big Brother Watch, said: “I think he has very little moral authority to talk on these issues and of course he was a champion of ID cards which the British public completely rejected and that’s really what a vaccine passport scheme could easily become.

“Let’s be very cautious of language like inevitability, which is often used by people with power to tell people without power, what they’re going to have.

“Vaccine passports would be discriminatory, they would be coercive, they would almost certainly lead to authoritarian identity systems. It could be the biggest expansion of the surveillance state that we’ve seen in western democracies.”

But Prof Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol, said his research on “immunity passports” – issued to those who have antibodies after contracting the disease – found that up to 80% of the British public were supportive of the idea.

Blair is understood to have been in contact with both Johnson and Keir Starmer in recent months as his research institute produced alternative strategies for combating the virus.

His proposal to speed up vaccination rollout, by offering a first dose to as many people as possible before a second dose, has been adopted by Johnson.

In the interview, Blair said there should be a real urgency from richer nations to roll out the vaccines to poorest countries because with Covid “disease anywhere is disease everywhere”.

“In the end, even those countries that have gone through a policy of eradication because they’ve been able to do so like for example, New Zealand, South Korea, Australia, at some point, they’ve got to open back up again.

“You’ve got to do whatever you need to do at this moment in time, but unless we get international business flowing again, and physical interaction happening again, then the economic damage is going to be absolutely devastating.

“And it’s going to affect the poorest people in the world most. In fact, it is affecting the poorest people in our own countries most.”

Asked about Labour’s handling of the pandemic, Blair said the party was in an “incredibly difficult position because, of course they want to hold the government to account, but they’ve got to do that in a way that doesn’t look churlish or mean spirited because most people in the country know whatever government’s in power, this is a nightmare to deal with and is extremely tough”.

He added that Labour “can” win the next election and pointed out that the pandemic was “in a sense not a real situation” to judge the Opposition.

“I think Keir Starmer has done the right things in pulling the Labour party back frankly from the Corbyn years.

“The Labour Party can rebuild at the pace that it wants to rebuild. But there’s no doubt at all that it’s only a rebuilt Labour Party, one that is back within the mainstream of British politics, that can win. I’ve got no doubt at all that that’s where he wants to get to.”

The full interview will be on The Week in Westminster, which is presented by HuffPost UK’s Paul Waugh, on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday February 13 at 11am.