LONDON — Show a passport for a pint? At first glance, it seems Brits will do anything to get back to the pub.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced this week he is pressing ahead with pilot schemes for COVID certificates, which will see spectators and revelers allowed a return to football stadiums and nightclubs if they can show they are COVID-free. And public opinion appears to be on his side.
Seven in 10 people support the principle of a so-called vaccine passport to go to the theater or an indoor concert, an Ipsos MORI UK KnowledgePanel poll found last week, with six in 10 of those polled also supporting their use in pubs, restaurants and even gyms.
Johnson insists no decisions on their wider use have been taken yet. But U.K. ministers are actively looking into how people can prove they have had either a vaccine; a recent negative test; or developed immunity from infection. Certificates could play a role in allowing people to return to theaters, nightclubs and mass events like festivals, and allow social distancing to be relaxed in hospitality venues.
But vocal critics of the proposals — drawn from both the left and right of British politics — are banking on a shift in public opinion as concept becomes reality.
“My instinct is that … [if] we get the virus properly under control, the death rates are near zero, hospital admissions very, very low, that the British instinct in those circumstances will be against vaccine passports,” Labour leader Keir Starmer told the Telegraph last Wednesday. Starmer has made clear that the main opposition party opposes the plans “in their current form.”
Steve Baker, an influential backbench Conservative MP, said in a press release on Tuesday: “Whether the government imposes this, recommends it or simply stands back and allows it to happen, COVID-status certification would be entirely un-British and our country and values would become unrecognizable.”
A very British perspective
As yet, Starmer and Baker’s assertions are not being borne out in the polls. In fact, Britons are strikingly more supportive of the principle of certificates when compared to other nations.
The British public was the most supportive of the idea of certification for travel, entertainment and other activities in a poll conducted by communications consultancy Kekst CNC last month, which posed the question to 1,000 people in each of the U.K., U.S., Germany, Japan, Sweden and France. Almost two-thirds (65 percent) of people agreed with the idea in Britain, compared to just 41 percent in Germany.
The U.K. also came out on top in a separate Redfield & Wilton Strategies survey looking at a willingness to carry vaccine passports across Britain, Germany, France and Italy last month.
“This time last year there was a lot of talk about [the U.K.] being rebellious as a nation, and that just isn’t true,” Bobby Duffy, a professor of public policy and director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said.
The U.K. was “absolutely up for lockdown, and more so than other countries in many instances,” Duffy said of last year’s survey data.
“We have got this kind of self-image of rebelliousness, or not playing by the rules, when actually we’re much closer to the image of the people who queue nicely, and do observe those types of social norms. That is more of our national character than perhaps our self-image suggests,” Duffy added.
Delve a little deeper
Yet while polls suggest there is majority public support for the principle, Duffy warns the government that it needs to “tread carefully.”
Research due to be published by King’s College London and the University of Bristol later this week suggests that a quarter of the public think vaccine passports will reduce civil liberties, although half think they won’t negatively affect personal freedoms. One in five believe vaccine passports will be used by the government for surveillance, according to figures from a sample of 2,442 U.K. adults surveyed by Ipsos MORI on March 24.
“While you get somewhere between 6 in 10 and 7 in 10 people agreeing with vaccine passports or certificates generally, there are still these bigger chunks of people that when they think about it a bit more, and think about specific aspects of it, do have concerns,” Duffy added.
“The case will need to be made over the coming weeks and months and it shouldn’t be taken for granted that people will not see the downsides as outweighing the upsides. They are minorities of people, but they’re not insignificant minorities of people,” he warned.
“When you root [polling] in reality, people are a bit more cautious,” said James Johnson, a former No. 10 pollster under Theresa May who has since set up his own company. “I bet good money that if you polled actual real-life scenarios like ‘I go to the pub with three other people, and one of them is an unvaccinated friend and they have to have a test result or whatever,’ people are going to be a little bit more squeamish about that,” he said.
Public opinion does change
David Davis, another Conservative MP and long-time civil liberties campaigner who is opposed to vaccine certificates, pointed to the complete about-turn in public opinion during the country’s last identity cards debate in 2007.
There had been strong support for the introduction of U.K. ID cards when the plans were first mooted by the then-Labour government, but the tide turned when the personal records of 25 million individuals, including their dates of birth, addresses, bank accounts and national insurance numbers, were lost in the post.
The scheme was finally scrapped when the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government came to power in 2010.
“It’s a good demonstrator really of how the real world catches up, and then the public adjust. The world does not consist of libertarians and authoritarians, it consists of people whose judgment about the balance will vary depending on the facts,” Davis said.
Labour peer Shami Chakrabarti, a former shadow attorney general and ex-director of civil liberties campaign group Liberty, also drew parallels with the ID cards debate, saying the COVID certification represented ID cards “turbo-charged and our so-called paranoias made real.”
“This would provide access to detailed health data in a mechanism not even policed by the state but by fellow citizens at restaurants, football matches and cinemas,” she warned.
Opposition to the plans, Chakrabarti points out, already comes from across the political divide — even if the public isn’t quite there yet.
“Because we’ve not been occupied in such a long time we’ve not had to have a war of independence or a constitutional reckoning, we’ve had to go on instinct so we say it’s ‘un-British,'” she said. “But it’s something that doesn’t neatly follow party lines. It’s Tory libertarians on the right, who are concerned about the rights of the freeborn Englishman, and people on the left like me and [former Shadow Home Secretary] Diane Abbott, worried about discrimination.”