England abandons vaccine passport plans


As more countries turn to coronavirus vaccination requirements in a bid to bring the pandemic to heel, England is moving in a different direction.

"I'm pleased to say that we will not be going ahead with plans for vaccine passports," U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid told the BBC's Andrew Marr on Sunday.

"There's a lot of defenses . . . that we need to keep in place because this virus hasn't gone anywhere, there's still a pandemic, so of course, we need to remain cautious," he said. "But we just shouldn't be doing things for the sake of it or because others are doing it."

The announcement marked a reversal of the government's plan to require proof of full vaccination to enter nightclubs and other crowded venues in England. Intended to incentivize vaccine uptake, especially among young people, the system had been expected to take effect at the end of the month.

About 65 percent of the population in England is fully immunized. But vaccination rates among young people have lagged behind those of older demographics. Coronavirus cases have dropped since July, though England is still reporting more than 20,000 new cases per day.

"Some of life's most important pleasures and opportunities are likely to be increasingly dependent on vaccination," Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in remarks directed to young people in July.

Officials had previously suggested, however, that the plan would never become reality, and that the government was using the threat of vaccine passports to convince people to get the shots. In late July, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab pointed to the surge in vaccination appointments in France following its government's announcement that proof of vaccination, a negative coronavirus test or natural immunity would be required to access restaurants, cafes and other places beginning in August.

A month after the system took effect in France, coronavirus infections have dropped. One public health consultant told Politico that the measures "saved tens of thousands of lives."

Italy also instituted a "green pass" system in July, requiring people to show proof of vaccination, recovery from covid-19 or a recent negative test to access indoor activities - a move that, to the surprise of some, appears to have helped increase internal tourism. New York City and several Canadian provinces are rolling out similar measures.

Some countries, such as Indonesia and Turkmenistan, have instead opted for blanket vaccine mandates. Russia and the United States, meanwhile, have placed the onus on employers to require that workers get vaccinated - though not without criticism.

In England, the vaccine passport plan encountered fierce opposition from across the political spectrum, with lawmakers in Johnson's Conservative Party calling it a hindrance to businesses and an infringement on civil liberties. The Liberal Democrats also opposed the measure, as did some venues. Labour leaders raised concerns about the plan and called for a testing component to be added.

Javid on Sunday acknowledged the concerns but defended the government's consideration of the policy. "I've never liked the idea of saying you must show your papers or something to do what is just an everyday activity. But we were right to properly look at it, to look at the evidence," he told Marr.

He added, however, that the government "should keep it in reserve as a potential option" should the coronavirus situation deteriorate. Some venues have been asking people to show proof of vaccination anyway, the BBC reported.

Just days before, government officials had defended the vaccine passport plan as necessary.

The Labour Party's deputy leader, Angela Rayner, on Sunday criticized the swift reversal and called the government's approach to vaccine passports "shambolic from the start."

Johnson's government has come under fire for policy reversals over the course of the pandemic that have eroded the public's trust. Javid's remarks Sunday came ahead of Johnson's announcement of his winter coronavirus plan for England on Tuesday.

Sunday's announcement applies only to England. Wales is still considering adopting vaccine passports, and people in Scotland will be required to show proof of full vaccination to get into nightclubs and many large events starting in October. Northern Ireland is not currently considering such measures.