Two separate but related Covid events occurred today. First, the number of people in the UK hospitalised with the virus passed 8,000 for the first time since March. Second, the Scottish parliament passed legislation requiring vaccination certificates for access to nightclubs and large events from October 1.
In Scotland, the move follows a surge in cases which actually pre-dates the return of schools in the country. In England, despite recent optimism about a brief fall, the stats on the government dashboard are flashing red too. And vaccine “passports” are very much back on the agenda.
Some Tory MPs opposed to the certificates had been hoping that the lack of any concrete plans from the government was a good sign. When Jacob Rees-Mogg announced next week’s Commons business, there was no mention of any regulations enacting the passport plan for England.
But as this week’s snap vote on NHS and social care tax hikes showed, the government can at any moment table changes to business. Moreover, this year, unlike previous years, the House is sitting for three weeks (Lib Dem conference is virtual, seems to be the reason) in September so there is still time to meet the PM’s “end of September” deadline for nightclub certification.
That pledge, made in July, has another key similarity to the National Insurance rise: Boris Johnson says it goes against his inner-most political principles, but Covid is making him ditch them. He is a “low tax” Tory who puts up taxes. And he’s a “freedom-loving, fun-loving” Tory who is set to make vaccination effectively compulsory for access to fun. The Covid caveat certainly has multiple uses.
When asked about speculation that ministers are backing off the plan amid backbench unease, the PM’s spokesperson was resolute. He told us “it remains our intention to introduce this at the end of the month”. Yes, vaccines minister Nahdim Zahawi told worried Tory backbenchers on Wednesday that the idea “goes against everything I believe in”. Yet he still said “we are moving forward on this”.
Zahawi said the PM didn’t “want to curtail people’s freedoms” because that was “not in his DNA”. That sounded very much like PM’s infamous line this week that he had an “emotional commitment” not to raise taxes further and didn’t “want” to do so. It may not be in his DNA, but it is in his legislative out-tray.
With infections rising, the statistics are forcing the government’s hand anyway. But the real numbers that matter are not on the Covid dashboard but in the whips’ tally lists. Johnson knows the regulation for passports and nightclubs won’t pass without a parliamentary majority.
Which is why Scotland matters. Would SNP MPs, whose MSP colleagues voted today for passports, really vote against the move in England? I suspect not. That’s a hefty 45 MPs unlikely to join any Tory rebellion. And although Labour MSPs voted against the move in Holyrood, it’s far from clear that Keir Starmer would ask his MPs to do the same.
This week, Angela Rayner underlined Starmer’s stance that “we cannot support any potential Covid pass scheme for access to everyday services”. But Zahawi reassured her his scheme was not for everyday services. It was just for nightclubs and other crowded places that Chris Whitty and his advisers feared could become “superspreader” venues this winter.
Rayner had a neat line that ministers have “dithered, dawdled, and...dad danced away the summer”. Labour will probably make the government sweat like a disco-biscuit biting clubber by refusing to make their own whipping clear until the last minute.
It’s worth remembering that the party is in government in Wales and Mark Drakeford has said that he has “no plans” to introduce mandatory vaccination certificates for venues due to “ethical and equality considerations”. Still, an abstention feels more likely than Starmer joining the Tory lockdown sceptics, not least if the SNP refuse to oppose too.
The most salient fact is that requiring double-jabbing is seen by many in government as not just a key public health protection in itself, but also one of the best ways of increasing the vaxx rate among younger age groups – while avoiding new lockdowns.
Most important of all is how central the vaccination programme is to the PM’s record on the pandemic overall – and his lead in the polls. Covid passports in everyone’s smartphones is a way of reminding the public of that success story and embedding it in their psyche even more. Political inoculation against other failures may trump everything else in the end.