The government is facing its biggest rebellion to date over its plan to mandate Covid passports for large venues, bring back compulsory face masks in most indoor settings and ask people to work from home where possible. The Spectator is keeping count: no fewer than 75 Conservative MPs have so far indicated they will vote against the measures on Tuesday.
Covid passports are the most controversial element. Some MPs appear irreconcilable; Steve Baker has called the plans a “tyranny” and a “miserable dystopia”. Others, though, have raised more practical concerns: the Scottish Conservative leader, Douglas Ross, has questioned the evidence that they would reduce transmission; while newly elected MP for Hartlepool Jill Mortimer has argued they would “unnecessarily hurt local businesses”.
These concerns are hardly surprising. The government has flip-flopped repeatedly over the use of vaccine passports, and the evidence for them remains limited. The size of the rebellion also reflects the prime minister’s waning authority in the light of a succession of scandals. But as cases of the Omicron variant continue to rise, the government needs to build confidence in its Plan B approach – and ensure compliance is high. It needs to do a better job of addressing the concerns of its MPs and explaining what it thinks Covid passports will achieve.
Governments around the world have typically highlighted two main aims with Covid passports: reducing transmission and increasing vaccine uptake.
Ross is right that the evidence on transmission is limited. The government’s taskforce suggested in the summer that implementing a passport scheme with only proof of vaccination (not testing) might reduce community transmission by 1–5%, stating that it was "likely to have a positive impact in reducing transmission, although it is not possible to say accurately by how much". But it also warned that introducing passports could mean people gathering in pubs and small venues not covered by certification, risking then an increase in transmission between young people and more vulnerable individuals. The impact of incorporating testing or the reduction in vaccine effectiveness with Omicron is also unclear.
The government is yet to set out is thinking. If it believes that passports will provide a behavioural nudge and, as part of a package of measures including increased testing, have a larger impact on transmission then it needs to explain why.
Alternatively, the government may think the benefit of Covid passports would be in encouraging vaccine uptake.
Again, the evidence is limited and appears mixed. In countries like France, which earlier this year was struggling with low vaccine confidence, extensive Covid passport schemes appear to have helped boost uptake, at least in the short term. But in countries with higher uptake passports seem to have had less impact. In Scotland, uptake increased slightly after the government introduced its passport scheme, though the Scottish government stopped short of saying that the Covid pass had caused this. The effect may also vary between different people: some research suggests passports could actually reduce willingness to get vaccinated among some more hesitant groups.
The government may think any possible boost to uptake is worth pursuing, given its newly announced ambition to hugely accelerate the booster programme (although boosters are not currently included in the domestic Covid pass). Or it may believe people will be more willing to be nudged to protect their Christmas plans. Again, it needs to set out its thinking and how it has taken into account evidence from countries that have already introduced Covid passports.
The government’s plans to include testing within the Covid passport scheme would mitigate some of the ethical concerns about exacerbating existing inequalities, given the uneven vaccine uptake among different groups. But the government will need to ensure that testing is as widely available as possible to minimise disruption – and there have already been accounts of people struggling to access tests.
The impact of any Covid passport scheme will also depend on how effectively businesses enforce it – doing so may require additional staff as well as the technology to scan passes. Hospitality venues are already facing the prospect of reduced turnover over the Christmas period as fear of Omicron causes more people to stay at home, regardless of official guidance. Evidence from Scotland suggests its vaccine-only passport scheme led to “substantial turnover losses” for nightclubs and other venues, while some events struggled with long waiting times and crowding. The government will need to set out how it expects businesses to implement schemes – and what support it will provide.
There will be some parliamentarians and members of the public who see Covid passports as an irreconcilable attack on liberties. But as it sets out the epidemiological arguments, the government also needs to do a better of job of explaining how it thinks a smooth-running vaccine passports scheme will allow more people to access more places now – and reduce the chance that it has to bring in tougher measures at a later date.
As the threat from Omicron grows, public and business engagement with Plan B is crucial if it is going to have an impact on transmission. First, ministers need to start by doing a better job of persuading their own colleagues.
- www.mdpi.com/2076-393X/9/8/902/htm; www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.05.31.21258122v1