In recent weeks, as the Government has very impressively rolled out its vaccination programme, there has been increasing discussion of ‘vaccine passports’. It is said that such documents might open the way for Summer holidays, and that they might be used to allow some lucky people to return to the pub, or to go to mass participation events. This enthusiasm has spilled over into the world of work, with care homes suggesting that they might require new employees to have been vaccinated, and a chain of plumbers saying the same.
The Government, though, has been less keen; a charitable description of Ministerial statements is that they have been very cautious, although others might say they have been confused. They seem to back vaccine passports for international travel, which is fair enough given that many countries have for years asked for proof of inoculations against other diseases. But back at home it has been less sure-footed. The Prime Minister has ruled out passports for a trip to the pub, and from time to time other Ministers have poured cold water on the idea that the Government is preparing for their introduction domestically. But having once argued that “mandating vaccinations is discriminatory and completely wrong”, the Vaccines Minister has more recently said that the use of passports will be up to individual businesses, whilst the Foreign Secretary has agreed that shops and bars might well demand their use.
When it comes to employment contracts the Government also seems to want to sit on the fence. The Health Secretary has acknowledged that carers might be required by their employers to be vaccinated, and ‘sources’ have briefed the Times that “Ministers … have no plans to forbid others from setting up their own schemes, meaning that passports could become reality for many regardless”; the same newspaper has previously reported that care homes, schools and other businesses are drawing up plans to force staff to show they have been vaccinated. And the Lord Chancellor has apparently given a green light for companies to demand that new staff show a vaccine passport in order to obtain work.
So the Government seems desperate to stay out of this issue, allowing foreign governments and private businesses to decide the way ahead. This instinct is understandable but it is also unsustainable. And by failing to be clear about the way forward the Government is in danger of squandering some of the political capital it has accrued thanks to the success of its vaccination policy.
The reason the Government wants to stay out of this is obvious: it is difficult. If it intervenes to allow venues legally to prevent the unvaccinated from visiting, or to permit businesses to stop employees going to work without fearing a tribunal, the backlash will be severe. The backbenchers of the Covid Recovery Group have already made their position clear; to them, vaccine passports are discriminatory, undemocratic and frankly un-British. But it won’t just be hardliners who will be up in arms. What about the young, who will be vaccinated last? Or people who can’t have the vaccine? What happens if mutations mean we have to have another round of jabs next year? How will it all work?
But despite the risks the Government simply cannot remain aloof. Businesses are already demanding answers to some really knotty questions. For example, who is liable if an unvaccinated carer infects a patient? What if vaccinated staff refuse to work with unvaccinated ones? What happens if a homeowner refuses to allow a plumber into the house without knowing if they’ve been jabbed? Businesses and the public will increasingly look to the Government for clarification of these and a host of other issues. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Government is, directly and indirectly, a major employer and provider of services itself, and before too long its own staff will want to know what’s going on.
It is worth noting too that many of these same concerns also apply to mass testing. Can a company force an employee to have a test? Can it make the individual stay at home if they refuse? Does it have to pay them? What about schools and pupils, pub-goers and hostelries, accommodation providers and guests? What, in short, are our rights and responsibilities as individuals and as organisations in all of this?
There are no easy answers. But silence is not a viable option. As we begin to follow the roadmap out of lockdown starting from next week the clamour for answers will inevitably become overwhelming. If the Government doesn’t want to muff up it will need to adopt a clear position of leadership; and it seems obvious to me that it will end up having to say that discrimination on grounds of vaccine status and willingness or otherwise to take a test is legal, at least in some circumstances and with plenty of room for exemptions. It may even have to take the lead in creating a widely accepted ‘passport’. (At last! Some use for the NHS Test and Trace app!) Ministers will be roasted for doing so. But they really do have to speak now.