Government faces opposition to Covid status certification from across political spectrum

Written by Alain Tolhurst and Sam Trendall on 12 April 2021 in News
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Opposition parties and its own MPs may vote against plans when given the chance to do so

Credit: CROFT MALCOLM CROFT/PA Archive/PA Images

The government is being urged to make big changes to its vaccine passport plans or face defeat in the Commons by opposition parties.

Both Labour and the Scottish National Party have confirmed they could not support the introduction of the “Covid status certification” in its current guise, as outlined by prime minister Boris Johnson last week. With at least 40 of their own Conservative MPs vowing to block legislation bringing in such a system, it means the government could struggle to get approval by parliament.

Last week the government confirmed a trial of the certification system at nine events around the country will begin later this month after a Whitehall review into their use concluded they could “allow some freedoms to be restored more safely”.

The prime minister said people will have to either show they have been vaccinated, have had a recent negative test, or have “natural immunity” to attend sports matches, music festivals, theatres, nightclubs and other mass events.

Citizens will be able to demonstrate their certification status via the existing NHS Covid-19 app, with a paper alternative set to be offered to those that do not use the technology.


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Speaking to PublicTechnology a month ago, Wolfgang Emmerich, UK boss of Zühlke – the company largely responsible for building the app – said that his firm expected this functionality might be added to the app in due course, although no plans had been confirmed at that point.

Now that such a system is set to become a reality, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the existing proposals are “a complete mess”, while the SNP said they are “mired in confusion and contradiction”.

The party’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford tweeted last week: “On the basis of the information available, SNP MPs would not support Tory plans due to serious concerns over ethics.”

Starmer has also doubled down on opposition to the government's proposed system. “We do not support the government’s plans in their current form – it is as simple as that," he told reporters last week. “In fact, the government’s plan seems to be changing on an almost daily basis, only a few weeks ago the prime minister was saying that he was thinking of vaccine passports to go to the pub. Now he says he isn’t. One day he is talking about tests, then certificates, it is a complete mess.

He added: “There isn’t a real plan around this, and what I fear is that it will be another example of the government with a plan that doesn’t work, costing lots of taxpayer money, when I think the focus should be on getting as many people vaccinated as possible – that is the light at the tunnel.”

Shadow defence secretary John Healey said using vaccine passports domestically was “likely to be discriminatory”.

He said he was happy to see trials using some form of certification for mass events go ahead, but told Times Radio: “From what we've seen so far, it's very hard to see Labour being able to support domestic vaccine passports for general use.

“Because if we're going to be asking, or requiring people to produce them for the day-to-day things, we all want to get back to doing like pubs or shops, then it's likely to be divisive, it’s likely to be discriminatory.”

Blackford had originally hinted that the SNP’s 44 MPs could back some form of certification, particularly if it was based on testing as well as vaccination, but like Labour, has since refused to support plans in their current form. 

“The UK government hasn't published any firm proposals on covid certificates, and the Tory position has been mired in confusion and contradiction," he tweeted. “On the basis of the information available, SNP MPs would not support Tory plans due to serious concerns over ethics.”

The Liberal Democrats have already indicated they would not support the plans in any form, its leader Sir Ed Davey said they would be “illiberal, unworkable and utterly ineffective in keeping people safe from Covid”.

Potential rebellion
The government is expected to put its final proposals to a vote in the Commons ahead of a certification system being introduced in the summer.

Without the support of opposition parties the focus will be on a likely rebellion of Tory backbenchers, led by the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown sceptics. 

Its deputy chairman Steve Baker said: “Covid Status Certification – the requirement to have a domestic vaccine passport or instead to take two tests a week in order to take part in society – would be discriminatory, lead to a two-tier Britain and be entirely incompatible with freedom.”

With a working majority of 85, if all 41 Conservative MPs who joined a campaign opposing the plans vote against them, it could be enough to see them blocked.

Downing Street sources have not ruled out suggestions the legislation for any domestic certification could be bundled up with international vaccine passports to re-enable foreign travel though, which are far less controversial, and could quell the potential rebellion.

 

About the author

Alain Tolhurst is chief reporter for PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared. He tweets as @Alain_Tolhurst.

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