Vaccine Passports Debate

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Department: HM Treasury

Vaccine Passports

Steve Baker Excerpts
Monday 15th March 2021

(10 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall
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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.”

--- Later in debate ---
Penny Mordaunt Portrait The Paymaster General (Penny Mordaunt)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate all Members who spoke in the debate and who helped to secure it, particularly the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill). I also congratulate the petitioner and everyone who signed the petition that has led to the debate, which is timely for a number of reasons. First, it is a pre-emptive strike, because the covid status certification review has yet to commence—indeed, as was alluded to, its terms of reference and the detail of what it will consider were published today; that information can be looked at on the Government website. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will lead on this and will primarily look at the domestic-facing issues that many Members referred to. The review goes wider than vaccinations, taking in testing and an array of other issues. To be helpful to hon. Members, let me say that, in parallel, a cross-Government group chaired by the Secretary of State for Transport is working on the international-facing and travel issues that Members have spoken about. That feeds into the work of the covid team in the Cabinet Office, and CDL has ultimate responsibility for that.

The review will report in advance of step 4 on the road map, which, as hon. Members will know, will be reached no earlier than 21 June. The review has come about in part because in spring, the Government committed in their covid-19 response to reviewing the potential role of certification in our handling of covid-19 from summer onwards. The review will assess whether certification could play a role in opening up the economy and society, reducing restrictions on social contact and improving safety. I reassure hon. Members that we very much want to return to our normal way of life, which means not just lifting restrictions, but having all the other things that we previously enjoyed and have missed over the last 12 months.

The review will consider the extent to which certification would be effective in reducing risk and helping to open up parts of the economy. It will look at the ethical, privacy, legal and operational aspects of certification and their implications for those who are unwilling or unable to be vaccinated, the equalities implications, to which hon. Members have referred, and the impact of certification on groups who are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Steve Baker Portrait Mr Steve Baker
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There are many questions that I would love to ask, but I will ask one in particular. Can the Minister confirm that, if people choose not to get vaccinated, they will bear their own responsibility and the rest of us will not be held back because some people have made a personal choice not to have the vaccine? If they do not want the vaccine, that is fine, but they should not hold the rest of us back.

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I cannot give my hon. Friend many answers today, as the review has just started, but what I would say to him is that, in all of this, we have to remember that the reason why we are charting our way out of this situation is, yes, in part due to fantastic science and the success of the vaccine programme, but also that members of the public have taken care of and taken responsibility for themselves and other people. We have not legislated for that to happen; it has happened because people feel motivated to take responsibility. We have to remember in all of this that, even though we are very used to passing laws talking about enforcement and all those other things, ultimately this has been about the British public taking responsibility for themselves, their families and their communities.

I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool for setting out at the start of the debate why this is not a call from anti-vaxxers or covid sceptics. It is not. Legitimate questions are being raised about our freedoms and the practicalities and the implications of this for people who are disproportionately affected by covid. The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of the degree of control we have over decisions that may be taken in international forums. As I understand it, any international agreement would be years off; an initiative spearheaded, for example, by the World Health Organisation, would be many years down the line. We are in control of what we decide about our own borders and our own systems, but clearly my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and others are talking to international counterparts to get something that makes sense and also to learn from good practice.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about those who are not able to have the vaccine. People have spoken about physical health conditions, but there are also mental health conditions. I have been speaking to people who have a severe phobia of needles and could not in any way be injected. I know that vaccine companies are looking at alternatives, but at the moment we do not have those alternatives.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) spoke very powerfully, as he always does, about our freedoms. As an aside, I will say that I looked up the powerful Patrick McGoohan quote that he gave from “The Prisoner”. I have to say that my hon. Friend did not say the preceding two lines, which were:

“I will not make any deals with you”,

and,

“I’ve resigned”,

although he has used those in other debates. But he does make a very powerful case about the practicalities. Would this actually have a practical effect if we were to bring it in? He raised very important points about equality. I can confirm that those are in the terms of reference for the review. Also, I hope he will take some comfort from what Ministers have said in the past about papers for having a pint. I think that that is the approach that people want to take, but it is right that we look at these issues and look at them in a transparent way. Again, this debate will help to inform and steer the review.