LONDON — The U.K.’s cautious approach to
returning life to normal entered a new phase
on Monday with non-essential shops and
outdoor seating for restaurants and bars in
England opening for the first time in over three
months of lockdown.
But one measure that could prove essential
to making sure society stays open is proving
Vaccine passports, or “COVID Status
Certificates” as they are officially known, are
being trialed at major sporting events this
month, with the hope that mass events can
open as safely as possible, and could provide
a model for the future. Similar schemes are
being piloted in countries around the world
with private companies in the U.S. now piloting
schemes in several areas. White House Press
Secretary Jen Psaki has said these will not be
But in Britain, a fiery debate between civil
liberties advocates and the government is
raging in a country that has administered
the most successful vaccination program in
Europe so far, as the plans raise fears around
data privacy and vaccine inequality.
What are the plans?
News that several major sporting events held
this month would be the laboratory for the
“COVID Status Certificate” scheme sparked
instant debate in the U.K. when the story broke
in the Daily Telegraph. Aside from that report,
the news of exactly where else the scheme,
which “could potentially play a role in settings
such as theatres, nightclubs, and mass events”
according to an interim report, is being trialed.
The most likely form they will come in is a
smartphone app that will provide proof of
vaccination or a recent negative coronavirus
Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccine minister, told
Sky News this month that trialing the vaccine
passports was “the right thing to do.”
The Cabinet Office, the branch of government
heading up the review into the use of vaccine
passports, said in a statement to ABC News
that they would be presenting their findings
to the U.K.’s Parliament later this month. The
trial highlights a more cautious approach to
the last time England exited a major lockdown
in the summer of 2020, in which pubs, bars,
restaurants and shops all opened on a July
date dubbed “Super Saturday.”
What are the plans?
The current plans will see indoor dining areas
in England open on May 17 at the earliest, and
no social restrictions at all on June 21. Scotland,
Wales and Northern Ireland are all on their
own similar paths, but despite the celebratory
mood, the government has warned caution is
needed to make the changes “irreversible.”
“The Government expects that COVID-status
certification could be demonstrated by: an
up-to-date vaccine status; a negative lateral
flow or PCR test taken at a test site on the
same day or the day before their admission
to a venue; or by proof of natural immunity,
such as through a previous positive PCR for
a time limit of 180 days from the date of the
positive test and following completion of the self-isolation period,” an interim report published by the Cabinet Office said.
The government has also announced a significant increase in the availability of rapid testing alongside the potential plans.
‘Political tidal wave’
The plans have been met with an instant backlash by politicians across the spectrum and civil liberties organizations.
More than 70 lawmakers and several privacy
groups signed an open letter opposing the
government’s plans, and Sir Keir Starmer, the
leader of the opposition Labour Party, said that he instinctively felt the certificates to be “un-British” in a recent newspaper interview.
Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch, a
civil liberties campaign group which co-signed the letter, told ABC News that the plans had sparked a “political tidal wave.”
“We have given up an awful lot over the last year,” she said. “People have made enormous sacrifices.
But don’t tell us that we made all these sacrifices
to enter this version of a new normal. Absolutely
not. We made those sacrifices to make sure that
everyone can be healthy, safe and free, and we are not going to be in any sensible sense free, if we are living under this kind of medical segregation in a check point society.”
“These events are either safe to open or they’re not safe to open, I think that’s the bottom line,” she said.
The plans have been met with a mixed reaction
from businesses, too. Leaders of the U.K.’s major soccer leagues have indicated that certification may be necessary to get fans back into stadiums, while pub and restaurant business leaders have warned the plans could prevent “visiting the pub for months, unless they get themselves tested in advance.”
Part of the reason they have not advocated their
use so far is incomplete though promising data
that vaccinated individuals will not transmit
the virus, as well as ongoing debates about the
ethical and economic impact, according to WHO
spokesperson Dr. Margaret Harris.
“Now generally with a good vaccine you do see
a reduction in transmission,” she told ABC News.
“And we’re seeing some early data which suggests that this may well be happening, but we haven’t got the proof yet. So to put something in place like a vaccine passport] that says yes, you’ve got this, you can’t transmit. We’re not there yet.”
The immediate debate, however, is what the “new normal” will look like in the domestic setting, and Carlo is convinced the plans could lead to a long- term, “illiberal” change to British society.
“As the saying goes, nothing is as permanent as a temporary government program,” she said.
A vaccine passport tracker compiled by the
Ada Lovelace Institute, an independent research
organization based in the U.K., has aggregated
information on potential vaccine passport plans
in 41 countries, the EU, the African Union and
among private companies. According to a poll
from YouGov, 58% of Britons are in favor of vaccine passports, with 34% opposed, while the vaccine rollout is still ongoing.
The WHO has not yet formally advocated for the
use of vaccine passports for international travel,
let alone domestic settings. While countries have
introduced their own measures of quarantine and proof of negative tests during the pandemic, under the International Health Regulations, yellow fever is the only disease for which countries can require proof of vaccination for international travelers.
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