Press Briefing: Boris Johnson holds fire on vaccine passport decision

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suggested that further details on vaccine passports will be revealed later this month, with privacy concerns about the scheme persisting. 

The Prime Minister said this would give pubs and other venues more time to prepare for the role certification may play, 'if any', in the opening up of society.

 

What did the Prime Minister say?

In his Monday press briefing, Boris Johnson revealed that a number of lockdown restrictions would be lifted as the government continues to follow its roadmap set out to facilitate the safe opening up of society.

Next week, rules regarding when and where you can meet up with family – as well as a string of other restrictions, including a ban on gathering outside in groups of more than 30, will be rescinded. 

But buried amongst the good news was an update on the Government's thinking with regard to vaccine passports and/or certification, a decision which privacy and civil rights groups have been campaigning against for months now. 

To give business more time to prepare we will be saying more later this month about exactly what the world will look like and what role there could be, if any, for certification and social distancing

Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

The statement – itself somewhat ambiguous – follows a government paper released last month that suggested Covid status certificates could be used to illustrate whether a person had not only been vaccinated, but tested, as well as whether they have 'natural immunity' due to antibodies produced during infection within the past half-year. 

Privacy concerns

The privacy concerns surrounding vaccine passports have been highlighted and trawled over for the past few months. Alarms were sounded back in March about how vaccine status information could be used to create an amalgamated 'personal risk score' if it was permitted to be collated with other data. 

Israel, for instance, had a number of security issues with their 'Green Pass' program including outdated encryption protocols, personal information being sent to private Gmail accounts of health ministry officials, and the prevalence of forgeries being sold on messaging app Telegram. 

Then, just last week, it was revealed that the NHS website would leak information about the vaccine status of individuals if a user was to enter some basic personal details about them, casting more doubt over whether the UK's health institutions could be trusted to securely handle the data required for a vaccine passport scheme. 

Political considerations

Whether Johnson pushes ahead with a certification scheme will not only depend on privacy concerns and infection rates, but also on a myriad of political considerations that suggest this could be one of the most contentious decisions of the pandemic. 

Members of the PM's current cabinet – including Michael Gove, who recently traveled to Israel to study the country's vaccine passport program – are certainly keen on the idea and have publicly expressed their enthusiasm for such a scheme. Johnson himself is also reportedly on board, which has made his 'if any' caveat from Monday's briefing somewhat surprising. 

The Covid Recovery Group – an alliance of over 40 Conservative MPs who have lobbied for the easing of Covid restrictions at earlier points than set out in the government's roadmap – are rallying against vaccine passports. The Liberal Democrats are also strongly opposed to the idea, and leader Ed Davey has likened the scheme to ID cards, dubbing it 'illiberal'.

Looking leftwards, They are joined by prominent Labour backbenchers like Jeremy Corbyn and Rebecca Long-Bailey. There are further suggestions that other Labour MPs oppose the policy but haven't public denounced it as of yet. Labour leader Keir Starmer told the Telegraph he felt the program would be 'un-British'. 

A crucial month

Vaccine passports, conceptually and logistically, are rife with issues. Wading into this deep quagmire of privacy, data, and other ethical concerns would be a serious mistake.

Johnson's mind is likely torn – although he may be a fan of a scheme like this, personal preferences may have to put to one side if he is to avoid a heated showdown with either his party or parliament.

It's certainly a divisive issue that would take some significant work to build a consensus or pass any related legislation – which is why Michael Gove has been attempting to woo skeptical MPs with behind-the-scenes meetings. Complicating matters further, almost all health powers are considered the respective responsibility of the UK's devolved parliaments, which means that Johnson would have to garner the support of parties like the SNP to avoid different rules in different parts of the UK.

But right now, whipping up support amongst dissenters of all stripes may prove more difficult than usual to the fact that Johnson & Co. are bogged down in a pretty significant cash-for-favors sleaze scandal. 

The present state of play – and the strong opinions this issue evokes – may go some way to explaining the ambiguousness around his announcement. Vaccine passports are currently hanging in the balance, and it looks like the decision could go either way. 

Written by: Aaron Drapkin

After graduating with a philosophy degree from the University of Bristol in 2018, Aaron became a researcher at news digest magazine The Week following a year as editor of satirical website The Whip. Freelancing alongside these roles, his work has appeared in publications such as Vice, Metro, Tablet and New Internationalist, as well as The Week's online edition.

1 Comment

Kalle Blomquist
on June 6, 2021
Reply
let's hope these MPs stay tough. If not we are lost. Society will be divided into good and bad, like in nazi-Germany.
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