Covid-19 vaccine passports tested in UK as lockdown restrictions ease

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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives a media briefing on 5 April

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Vaccine passports for covid-19 are likely to become a “feature of our lives”, according to a UK government review of the scheme, despite mounting political opposition to making proof of vaccination a condition of entry to workplaces, shops and venues.

Trials of vaccine passports, also known as certificates, will start shortly at specific events in England, including the FA cup final, and run until mid-May, the UK government announced on 5 April. The idea is that they could play an important but temporary role in the UK and internationally. The review was published as the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, confirmed the next phase of easing restrictions will go ahead in England as planned on 12 April.

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The UK government said certification should “never be required” in settings including public transport and essential shops, a stance in line with the German government. Discussions on vaccine passports are being held across all four UK nations.

However, more than 70 MPs from across the political spectrum have launched a campaign to oppose vaccine certificates, which they say would be “divisive and discriminatory”. The Labour party has indicated it is minded to oppose the measures if they are put to a parliamentary vote.

The UK government believes certificates are likely to be used until the end of the pandemic, whether it oversees them or not, because UK businesses could choose to implement them, and other countries have already begun requiring them at borders.

“I think some sort of certification is becoming almost inevitable for travel,” says Melinda Mills at the University of Oxford, co-author of a recent Royal Society report on vaccine passports. Israel, which has some of the world’s highest vaccination rates, has already introduced them, while the EU is planning a scheme in time for its summer holiday season. The aviation sector has backed certificates to kick-start international travel.

Nonetheless, concerns remain. Mills says certificates risk excluding or discriminating against some groups, including people with allergies, pregnant women and children who cannot yet be vaccinated.

Introducing them before the end of July, the target date for all adults in the UK to have been offered a vaccine, would create age inequalities, she adds. It still isn’t clear what the rules will be for children.

One way around this is for people who have tested negative for the coronavirus, or who can show they have antibodies from prior infection, to also be granted a certificate – an idea supported by the UK government.

There are also fears that digital passports that only work for certain smartphones could exclude people, as has happened in Saudi Arabia. The security of databases holding details of the certificates is another issue, along with concerns over civil liberties.

The UK’s political row over vaccine certificates comes as minutes from a meeting of the government’s scientific advisers show a third wave of the country’s epidemic is “highly likely”, according to new modelling. While vaccination rates mean another wave won’t cause as many hospitalisations and deaths, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies said it would still lead to cases of long covid and other health impacts.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine said most of the surge in covid-19 cases is likely to come from the UK government’s plan to end all restrictions by 21 June, and that a small surge will be caused by shops reopening on 12 April. The next peak in cases in the UK is expected in summer or autumn.

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