'No justification' for vaccine passports, MPs say

A vaccine-status certification scheme would be discriminatory, PACAC said
Photo: Monica Wells / Alamy Stock Photo

The government has failed to make the case for vaccine passports, an influential committee of MPs has said, warning that status certification would cause discrimination.

The Cabinet Office is in the process of reviewing whether to introduce a status-certification system that would enable people who have been fully vaccinated against coronavirus to access particular events or venues.

But the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee said there is “no justification” for such a scheme.

In a new report, the MPs said the evidence of vaccine takeup – which has been lower among Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups and lower socio-economic groups – showed vaccine passports would “disproportionately discriminate” on the basis of race, religion and socio-economic background.

It would also discriminate on the basis of age, because of the tiered rollout of the vaccine by age group, they said.

“While the committee accepts that in emergency situations the prospect of temporary infringement of rights may need to be weighed against public health or other emergency considerations, these occasions should only ever be when there is an overwhelming case of necessity and should, in all situations, be proportionate to that necessity,” the report said.

The report casts doubt on that necessity, arguing that the government has “so far failed to make the scientific case” for vaccine passports.

According to evidence submitted to PACAC’s inquiry, ministers are considering a system that would require people to show vaccine passports to enter large-scale events such as football matches, but that would exempt pubs and restaurants. The MPs questioned the thinking behind that decision, given that coronavirus is understood to be less transmissable at outdoor events than inside.

“This gives the impression that, if it were to introduce such a system, decisions would be made almost arbitrarily and would not be based on scientific or public health reasons,” the report read.

“The committee is concerned that it appears as if the government has pre-empted the conclusions of its own review and made decisions on a largely arbitrary basis as to what locations will be included or exempted from the system, regardless of the scientific evidence.”

Ministers who gave evidence to the committee were unable to provide figures on how much a vaccine-passport scheme would cost, or the likely costs to businesses or individuals the report said.

And it argued that in the absence of a compelling scientific or public-interest case for vaccine passports, developing the necessary infrastructure would be and “ineffective use of resources that cannot be justified”

“Given the large number of areas where the government was unable to provide the committee with information and answers in regards to: criteria against which the  efficacy of that system is to be assessed; the cost-benefit analysis proposals; modelling of different scenarios with and without a certificate system, combined with the [Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove’s own assessment that the case of a Covid-status certificate system is ‘finely balanced’, the committee does not think the government has made a case for any form of domestic Covid-status certification system,” the report concluded.

PACAC’s report called for a cost-benefit analysis of the scheme, and for the government to publish the criteria by which the scheme’s effectiveness will be judged if it goes ahead.

It also said if the government decides to introduce a vaccine-passport scheme “despite the absence of a scientific case for doing so”, it must provide a full equalities impact assessment “in good time” – before MPs vote on the proposals.

App decision "could be construed as contempt for parliament"

The report also raised concerns about data protection and privacy, warning that vaccine passports could “provide a back door for the introduction of ID cards”.

It said a certification system could be “fraught with data protection and security risks”.

It noted that unlike the NHS Covid-19 app, no data protection impact assessment has been published for the NHS app, which currently allows people to demonstrate their Covid vaccination status for international travel.

The decision to host the existing vaccination-certification function on the NHS app for international travel without consulting parliament “could be construed as contempt for parliament and this committee”, the report said.

"We found the government's approach on this matter to be all the more unfortunate as it appears to us that demonstrating Covid-status may become a necessary feature of international travel over the coming months and possibly years in order to avoid excessive quarantine and testing requirements," it added.

"As such, any proposals would likely have been looked on favourably by and strengthened through the scrutiny of parliament."

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