Plans to make vaccine passports mandatory across England in nightclubs and other crowded spaces later this month have been dropped, the health secretary has announced.
In a major climbdown branded “shambolic” by Labour, Sajid Javid said he “never liked the idea” but that it was “right to properly look at it, to look at the evidence”.
Ahead of an announcement on Tuesday on how ministers plan to tackle Covid and the pressure on the NHS this winter, he signalled a U-turn on the measures.
Javid told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “What I can say is that we’ve looked at it properly, and while we should keep it in reserve as a potential option, I’m pleased to say we will not be going ahead with plans for vaccine passports.”
Dozens of Tory MPs had been vocal about their strong opposition to the policy – enough to wipe out the government’s large majority in the Commons, meaning they expected that the prime minister, Boris Johnson, would find it impossible to mandate vaccine passports through legislation anyway.
However, Downing Street had continued to insist they would be introduced before October. The vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, told parliament last week: “It is part of our armoury to help us transition over the winter months from pandemic to endemic status.”
Javid even refused to say whether vaccine passports would be axed in an appearance on Sky just an hour before his announcement on the BBC, telling Trevor Philips on Sunday: “I’m not here today to rule it out.”
On the Andrew Marr Show, however, Javid insisted the decision not to press ahead with requiring people to prove their double-vaccination status in some settings had not been made “overnight” and added that there were other “defences we need to keep in place, because this virus hasn’t gone anywhere”.
“We shouldn’t just be doing things for the sake of it or because others are doing it, we should look at every possible intervention properly,” the health secretary explained.
“So you ask about vaccine passports. I think it’s fair to say most people instinctively don’t like the idea. I’ve never liked the idea of saying to people, ‘You must show your papers for … what is an everyday activity.’ But we were right to properly look at it, to look at the evidence.”
Javid hinted at what some have suspected – that the idea was touted by Johnson in a bid to drive up the lower vaccination rates among younger people.
Scrapping the need for travellers arriving in England to get a PCR test – as some newspapers reported the government was preparing to announce – was also not ruled out by Javid, who said the cost burden was “horrendous” and that he wanted to “take that away as soon as I can”.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said the U-turn on vaccine passports was the latest evidence that the government’s approach to them had been “shambolic from the start”, and that ministers had never given clarity about what they were meant to achieve, how they would work and how businesses should prepare to implement them. “This is the culmination of a summer of chaos from ministers and they urgently need to get a grip before winter,” she added.
Alistair Carmichael, the home affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, called the U-turn a victory for those “who stood up for our civil liberties against these deeply illiberal and unworkable plans”. He said the Conservatives would not be readily forgiven for “needlessly sowing confusion among businesses for months”.
Industry figures also welcomed the news. Sacha Lord, the founder of Parklife festival and night-time economy adviser for Greater Manchester, called vaccine passports “untenable and illogical”, while the Music Venues Trust said there were serious issues around “deliverability, practicality, equality and potential discrimination”.
However, Conservative MPs remained wary that the government was simply pausing its introduction of vaccine passports. Mark Harper, the chair of the Covid Recovery Group, said: “They shouldn’t be kept in reserve – they are pointless, damaging and discriminatory.”
The issue of vaccine passports has divided ministers for months.
A review was set up in February to look into Covid status certificates that would allow people to prove their inoculation status, a recent negative test result, or presence of antibodies through prior natural infection. It was decided several months later that the scheme would not be introduced, though government figures admitted it could be held in reserve for the winter, when scientists fear that rising Covid cases as people gather inside more, combined with a difficult flu season, will cause major pressure on the NHS.
In July, Johnson announced vaccine passports would be mandatory in nightclubs and other unspecified crowded venues where people come into close contact with strangers. The decision particularly angered some because people were no longer allowed to use a negative test to gain access to such settings. Javid himself tested positive for Covid around the same time despite being double-vaccinated, leading people to question why the government was not considering a test result as acceptable to ensure people’s safety.
Scotland has already pressed ahead with introducing vaccine passports from 1 October for those seeking entry to nightclubs and large-scale events.Nicola Sturgeon’s proposal was passed with support from the Scottish Greens, who signed a cooperation deal with the SNP last month.