Vaccine Passports Debate

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Department: HM Treasury

Vaccine Passports

David Amess Excerpts
Monday 15th March 2021

(8 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall

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HM Treasury

[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]

David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (in the Chair)
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I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice—that is an obvious fact—in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. The timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate, which is why there will be a 15-minute interval, and there will be suspensions between debates.

I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate. I also remind Members participating virtually that they are visible at all times, both to each other and to us in the Boothroyd Room, so no drinking tea or eating food. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, they should email the Westminster Hall Clerks’ email address.

I ask Members attending physically to kindly clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room, if they would not mind. Members attending physically who are in the latter stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery and move on to the horseshoe when seats become available. Members may speak only from the horseshoe, which is where the microphones are.

To be helpful to colleagues, I have done the maths and am imposing a time limit of three and a half minutes on Back-Bench contributions. Obviously, Front Benchers will get the usual 10 minutes each.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill (Hartlepool) (Lab) [V]
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 569957, relating to vaccine passports.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the petitioner, Mr David Nolan, and all the other signatories of the petition, which has reached 295,842 signatures. The wording of the petition is as follows:

“We want the Government to commit to not rolling out any e-vaccination status/immunity passport to the British public. Such passports could be used to restrict the rights of people who have refused a Covid-19 vaccine, which would be unacceptable.”

The petitioner wants me to make it clear that they do not represent themselves as anti-vaccination. In their own words, “We believe anti-vaxx people are in an absolute minority in Britain.”

The petition is not exclusively about those worried about discrimination if they refuse vaccination; it is more about the implementation of vaccine passports and their technology for everyone in society. In comparison with yellow fever, the petitioner wants it to be known that “comparing this certification alongside any proposed covid status certification is not a viable argument, as we are dealing with very different viruses. Yellow fever certification is only required for up to 30 African and 13 Latin countries.”

The petition is not difficult to understand and stems from genuine concerns among many of the petitioners. I state clearly for the record my support for the vaccination programme, and I encourage everyone eligible for their vaccination to take it as soon as they are offered it by our national health service, which is working so hard to deliver the programme on time.

It is easy to understand why a vaccine passport may appear to be a perfect option for the Government, who are trying to ease the lockdown as quickly and safely as possible. The idea that we could allow events to start taking place at which people who have some immunity to the virus could return to some level of normality is attractive. Like everyone else in the country, I look forward to the day when such things can take place again safely, and something that could possibly speed us along to that point is a compelling suggestion.

After almost a year of lockdowns and social distancing restrictions, anything that can help to get people back out into the community, back into their workplaces, back into their businesses and back with their families is something that we cannot discount. However, we must also consider the possible drawbacks that come with such a proposal, and we must consider the concerns with fairness. There are concerns about vaccine passports that go beyond the pseudoscience of anti-vax protesters and Twitter trolls. I therefore urge hon. Members to be mindful of some of these arguments in their contributions.

To date, the Government have not brought forward any concrete plans on vaccine passports or how they could work. However, as some countries and travel companies are beginning to require proof of vaccination as a precondition of entering their territory without the need to quarantine or of booking travel, some form of proof may be necessary at least to relaunch our tourism sector. If British holidaymakers and travellers are required to have proof for international travel, it will be difficult not to have some kind of Government-issued certification to back that up. Even if the UK opts out and opts not to use vaccine passports in the same way as other states, we may be required to provide some proof for those wishing to go abroad if other states require proof prior to entry.

If that were to be the case, how it would work domestically is unknown. I invite the Minister present to shed some light on that in their summary of the debate, as the domestic and international situations are very different and, even if domestic requirements remain low, international requirements may not give us a great deal of choice. The concept of using vaccine passports in domestic settings is of concern to some people as we go forward.

As Members will be aware, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has published priority lists, which will work their way through the population from those most vulnerable to covid down to the least vulnerable. Although it is not always the case, often that involves going from the oldest groups in society to the youngest—again, I must stress that that is not always the case. Therefore, introducing vaccine passports at present would exclude those who have not yet had the opportunity to receive their vaccine. There is a genuine fear that younger people who do not have any characteristics that place them on the priority list could be prevented from taking part in events or from taking certain actions, for no reason other than age and lack of pre-existing health conditions. Similarly, many people are concerned about how a vaccine passport would be properly managed, as anything that required a smartphone, as the current covid another place does, could bar many elderly people or people living in poverty from accessing such a system.

I must also stress at this point that although I encourage everyone to get their vaccination when they are offered it, people do have the right to choose not to be vaccinated if they so wish. Nobody can currently be compelled to take the vaccination under the law, despite it being our best hope in this national fight. The number of people currently indicating that they will not take the vaccine when offered it is currently very low, and it is my sincere hope that it remains that way, for the chances of our recovery. Nevertheless, the question that we must ask ourselves is whether such a policy would be fair to people who have the right to make that choice, however we who support the vaccination programme might personally feel about their decision.

If, as much media speculation indicates, proposals about domestic usage of vaccine passports are under consideration, I invite the Minister to clarify any of those proposals in their summary at the end of the debate, in the interests of openness and of the petitioners. I invite Members to consider carefully some of the arguments that I have set out in their consideration of the petitioners’ request. Even those in favour of such a system cannot dismiss counterarguments without proper and fair consideration, especially when it comes to ensuring that everybody in the elderly and vulnerable groups will have access to a vaccine passport, and that those who have not been vaccinated because they are further down the list are not excluded because they have not yet had their turn.

Once again, I thank Mr Nolan and all the petitioners for raising this important issue.

David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (in the Chair)
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Before I call the next speaker, I remind Members that, in line with Mr Speaker’s wishes—I am not being old-fashioned or stuffy—gentlemen, when addressing the House physically or virtually, must be properly attired with a jacket and tie.

Steve Baker Portrait Mr Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con)
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I refer Members to the declarations that I have made in relation to the covid recovery group.

“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own”—

I quote, of course, from the popular 1967 drama “The Prisoner”. It seems to me that nothing has changed in some people’s desire to treat us as commodities to be managed by the state, yet what has changed is the availability of technology to make it so.

I am very grateful to my constituents who have written to me about this matter. We have had a prior debate on this subject, or at least a debate in which I raised this subject, and I thought that the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), had ruled out vaccine passports. I am very grateful, therefore, to have this opportunity to hear from the Minister at this stage in the review through this petition, and I am grateful to the petitioners.

I also thank Big Brother Watch, which has provided a very helpful brief, with nine reasons why covid passes must be stopped. I will briefly race through as many as I can squeeze in. First, they will be unnecessary due to the availability of effective vaccines. Indeed, the Government’s amazing success in rolling out vaccines means that those most vulnerable to covid-19, and soon anyone who wants and is medically eligible for a vaccine, will have a high level of protection from the virus. That means that hospitalisations and deaths associated with covid will fall drastically, and overbearing controls on society will not be justified.

I know that the Government are now looking at covid status certificates, which bring into play the issue of mass testing. Of course, the ground has been sown with salt on the issue of false positives, I am sorry to say, often by some apparently eminent people who lamentably neglected the practical evidence from hospitals of real people with real disease, so I hesitate to bring up the issue. But it has to be said that, as we reach an era of low prevalence of the disease, if we carry out mass testing on asymptomatic people, the issue of false positives will undoubtedly be relevant. We need to hear from the Minister what she is going to do to ensure that people who test falsely positive with lateral flow tests, and indeed PCR—polymerase chain reaction—tests, do not end up deprived of their liberty unnecessarily. We very much need to hear from the Government about that.

Of course, vaccine passports would be discriminatory. They would have the effect of socially and economically excluding people who have not had either a vaccine or a recent test result. It is of course unlawful under equality law to discriminate against people with protected characteristics, including age, disability, pregnancy, religion or belief—I underscore belief. I shall have my vaccine when I am offered it, but there will be various people for various reasons who will choose not to do so.

Effectively making vaccines mandatory by implication through covid status certification could be counter-productive. The evidence from across Europe shows that if people feel compelled to take vaccines, it puts them off. It would implement, of course, a checkpoint society. It would mean passes for the pub—if you want your pint, Sir David, you will have to show your papers. I did not think that is the society that we wished to live in. A surveillance state would be instituted. There would be mission creep. Passes would be irreversible and divisive, and of course they would infringe on the autonomy of the individual. I lament that I do not have time to go through each of those points in detail, but I will certainly provide the brief to the Minister afterwards.

I want to finish with another quote from “The Prisoner”—something that I ask people advocating for these certification regimes to bear in mind. No. 2 says:

“We can treat folly with kindness…knowing that soon his wild spirit will quieten, and the foolishness will fall away to reveal a model citizen.”

No. 6 replies:

“That day you’ll never see.”

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Chris Green Portrait Chris Green (Bolton West) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) and the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart). I thought that the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) set out so many of the issues very well. It is a pleasure to speak in this e-petition debate on electronic vaccine passports, which is incredibly timely.

The starting point is that it is fundamentally up to individual countries to make decisions for themselves, so it ought not to be, in that sense, for the United Kingdom to take a lead with regard to what Brazil, Italy or any other country chooses to do. We have to respect those countries and their decisions; it is not for us to determine what they do. I hope that all countries, including the United Kingdom, if we choose at some point to take this approach of vaccine passports for other countries’ foreign nationals coming here, will themselves consider what they should do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe captured the point about the effectiveness of the vaccination programme. It is remarkable. I had no anticipation that it would be as effective as it seems to be at the moment. We have to recognise that, and the protection that will give to so many people right around the world. Any question over certification for vaccinations or anything else therefore has to be proportionate to the threat of the disease itself, which at the moment is diminishing, so actually the need is diminishing. At the same time, there has been an escalation in concerns and expectation that the passports will be delivered for many countries. I am quite sympathetic to the sense of having vaccinations.

About 20 or so years ago, when I was in the Territorial Army, I went on an expedition to Ecuador to climb Volcán Sangay. I had a yellow fever vaccination and got a certificate. There are minimal concerns about certification if someone has a piece of paper to demonstrate their vaccination status, and we do not need fancy electronic readers to read a certificate—we just need to be able to speak the language used on the certificate. I am pretty comfortable with vaccination certificates. If there were any questions about forgeries or anything else, companies such as De La Rue, which is based in my constituency, could make remarkable authentication devices to put on certificates and ensure that there were no concerns about authenticity.

If we moved from paper certificates to electronic, however, significant questions of civil liberty would arise. Who in the world would run that database? What data would go into it and who would determine that? Would it be an international body such as the United Nations, the EU or some other organisation? If we could not get an international organisation to take the lead, would a big corporate organisation do so? Would big tech in California have control over the database? In the light of what happened when the Australian national Government confronted a big tech company, giving such a company so much power would be a colossal problem. We need to be proportionate and cautious. We need to look to paper first and foremost, and there would need to be huge justification if we were to take the electronic route, which I would not welcome.

David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (in the Chair)
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Our next speaker could not be here at the start of proceedings because he was in the main Chamber, so he might not have heard that there is a three-and-a-half minute limit on speeches. I call Mr Ian Paisley.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and thank you for that warning about time. I hope not to detain the House that long, but I will make a few brief comments.

I welcome the debate because it is an opportunity for the Government vigorously to reinforce the view that they are not going to introduce vaccine passports. I hope that they use this platform to state that they will not do so, because such passports would be a complete and total overreaction, and they are completely and totally unnecessary.

The vaccine roll-out has been positive—a success for the UK. We had a similar response with respect to the flu vaccine, but no one would say that people must have a passport to prove that they have had that particular vaccine, even though flu takes many lives in the United Kingdom each winter. It would be a complete and total overreaction for Members to stand up and demand such a passport for people who had received the flu vaccine. We do not need such passports, which would become supplementary identity cards.

I agree with the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) about the Republic of Ireland’s kneejerk reaction today to stop rolling out the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. That is more about the failure of the Republic of Ireland to have its own successful vaccine roll-out programme than it is about anything else. I understand that about 17 million people across Europe have received that vaccine, and from those 17 million vaccines, there have been only about 31 adverse effects. That is a remarkable state of affairs, and what we have seen in the Republic of Ireland is more to do with politics than it is to do with science.

Like the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), I believe that vaccine passports would lead to a two-tier society and would increase opportunities to discriminate. That would be abundantly wrong. I agree that we cannot legislate for what other countries do. If we want to go to certain countries, we might have to have a vaccine passport, or proof that we have received a vaccine, but that is a matter for those countries. All we can do is implore them to be proportionate and responsible in what they do. We should not pursue vaccine passports domestically, however. If airlines or other countries decide to do this, that is of course a matter for them, but we should implore those countries and organisations to demonstrate proportionality in what they do.

Our civil liberties are something we should cherish, and we should not throw them away so quickly for others to manage for us because they know better. The people know what is best and we should guard our civil liberties with care.

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Greg Smith Portrait Greg Smith (Buckingham) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.

Many of the arguments relevant to the debate have already been eloquently made, not least by my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe (Mr Baker), for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg) and for Bolton West (Chris Green). I shall begin with the concept of international versus domestic. I am far less concerned with vaccine passports focused on opening up borders. It is not unusual to need a host of jabs to travel to certain places, and I have happily proven my vaccination status on, for example, yellow fever when visiting Tanzania. That is right and fair, but domestic covid certificates, whether used by public services or private businesses, would be intrusive, pointless and wrong. I fear they would be tantamount to moving vaccination on to a more mandatory footing.

The World Health Organisation released a statement only a couple of months ago, saying that it was opposed for the time being to the introduction of vaccine passports. That said, there does appear to be a global push towards these restrictions on individual liberty. In my opinion, the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), was right when he stated that vaccine certificates would be “discriminatory”.

I want to be clear that, when my turn comes, I will be having my jab, and I encourage everybody to have their covid vaccination when offered it. However, the vaccine passport concept would have a disproportionate impact on groups in our society where vaccine hesitancy is at its highest. We cannot allow a position where significant numbers of Britons are turned away from jobs and services on the basis of their vaccination status.

Moreover, as other hon. Members have said, some people cannot be vaccinated. There are groups that are medically advised to avoid vaccination, from pregnant women, as the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) mentioned, to people with other health conditions, such as a young woman in my constituency who wrote to me, who suffers from epilepsy but is otherwise healthy. She is desperate to return to her university and continue her education. Should she not also be allowed to take part in our society?

The implication for young people at large would indeed be immense. At present, most young people have not been offered a vaccine. Vaccine certificates would result in young people facing more stringent social restrictions than others, all through no fault of their own.

Importantly, a vaccine certificate scheme may also be counterproductive, with research showing that compelling people to take vaccines does not necessarily result in the higher uptake that we all want to see. Individuals are best placed to make their own choices. I am incredibly proud of the progress the United Kingdom has made in vaccinating the population, but that should be used to set people free, not to restrict their freedoms further.

I close with this view: I fear that, should vaccine certificates become commonplace, they would inevitably expand and endure beyond the immediate challenges of this pandemic. I do not believe that should be allowed to happen.

David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (in the Chair)
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Mr Paisley has had to temporarily leave our proceedings because he is on the call list in the main Chamber. I call Mr Alistair Carmichael.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD) [V]
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.

I add my voice to those in this debate who have spoken about the importance of us all encouraging our fellow citizens to take up their vaccination. On Wednesday morning, I shall be joining the queues in the Pickaquoy Centre in Kirkwall to have my vaccination, and I very much look forward to the extra freedoms that that may allow me.

However, it is worth remembering that one year ago we all, as a country, surrendered a significant number of important freedoms to the Government. It was a necessary thing to do at the time, because we were facing something where we did not really know how it would pan out. One year on, though, we know an awful lot better how we must deal with this pandemic. We see the great increase in the numbers of our fellow citizens getting vaccinated, and I suggest that the Government’s efforts should be focused on returning our liberties rather than tightening them further. That is why I oppose the idea of a vaccine passport.

I think the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) and I are the only people on the call list for this debate who were in the House when the Labour party, then in government, passed the Identity Cards Act 2006. I will just remind the House why many of us opposed that particular measure. It was not just the idea of having to carry an identity card; it was because along with that identity card there came the need for a register and a database. It was the considerations of the cost of those, and the security implications of the Government’s holding so much data, that led many of us to oppose the Act, and I would say that, 15 years later, nothing has changed.

Of course, for some occupations it will be sensible for employers or others to ask for evidence of vaccination, but that is a very different proposition from the one being put to us today. To call it a passport is a good analogy. Let us consider this: in theory, we only need our passport if we are going to travel abroad, but in practice, I can tell the House that I have often had to argue that it is not necessary for me to produce my passport to get on a plane at Heathrow to go to Aberdeen.

We are required to produce passports for a whole range of things these days. They are not only needed to travel abroad; a passport needs to be produced to open a bank account or instruct a new solicitor. Once we have said that it is okay to have a passport for covid, where will that argument go when the threat of covid has receded? If it was okay for covid, why not require people to produce a passport for HIV, for example? What we have before us today is the very thin end of a thick and dangerous wedge.

The concept of a vaccine passport is not just a matter of administrative convenience; it is a first step in a major redefinition of the relationship between the citizen and the state, which we should not take so lightly. When freedoms are given up, the state rarely rushes to return them. Remember how it was the last time we had identity cards. It was only going to be for the duration of the second world war, but seven years after the end of that war, it required a citizen to take the Government to court to end it. That is why this matters.