Boris Johnson has suggested that Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who said that domestic vaccine passports are off the table, and Vaccine Minister Nadhim Zahawi, who said they were going ahead, are "both right" in the latest instance of unclear messaging coming from the government.
On Wednesday, Vaccine Minister Zahawi found himself defending to the House of Commons plans to introduce vaccine passports for nightclubs and other mass events set to come into effect at the end of this month, only for Health Secretary Javid to say that the plans had been scrapped, at least for now.
Asked for clarity on who is right on Monday afternoon, Prime Minister Johnson told Sky News: "Both Saj, Sajid the Javid, the health secretary, and Nadhim Zahawi the vaccine minister are both right. What we want to do is avoid vaccine passports if we possibly can, and that's the course we're on. But I think you got to be prudent and you got to keep things in reserve in case things change."
This would not be the first time that Javid and Zahawi gave conflicting messages, after both ministers contradicted each other within days of whether 12- to 15-year-olds could be vaccinated against their parents' wishes.
The apparent u-turns over domestic vaccine passports came fast over the past 24-hours, with Javid saying on Sunday there would be no vaccine passports for nightclubs at the end of this month, with Work and Pensions Minister Thérèse Coffey reiterating in her early Monday media rounds that vaccine passports "haven't been ruled out forever", and, in fact, "the formal decision is still to be made". In fact, Javid had left the possibility open-ended himself, caveating the announcement by saying that " we should keep it in reserve as a potential option".
The back and forth on messaging between ministers, and the rather open-ended statements by Cabinet figures, freeing them from making cast-iron pledges on controversial topics, has been seen often on the issue of domestic vaccine passports for at least the last ten months.
- December 1st: I don't know anyone in government working on vaccine passports -
In late November 2020, Mr Zahawi suggested that the UK might implement vaccine passports as a result of there being the technological capability and of industries demanding them, such as for going to the pub or the cinema.
Going into damage control, senior minister Michael Gove told media the next day when asked whether you would need a pass for a sporting event or going to the theatre: "No... No, that's not being planned. I certainly am not planning to introduce any vaccine passports and I don't know anyone else in Government [who is]."
The following month, Mr Gove was announced to be leading a review on vaccine passports.
- January 12th: "Yes you can Claire" -
The issue of vaccine passports arose again in the new year, amidst reports from The Telegraph that trials would be rolled out across the country.
Responding to the report, Zahawi tweeted to the newspaper: "We have no plans to introduce vaccine passports... No one has been given or will be required to have a vaccine passport."
Claire Fox, the recently-appointed Baroness Fox of Buckley, asked Zahawi: "Good to hear. Again. Can we hold you to this?"
To which the vaccine minister replied: "Yes you can Claire."
- February 8th: Vaccine passports are discriminatory and we do things by consent -
Zahawi rejected the introduction of vaccine passports, saying: "...vaccines are not mandated in this country...that's not how we do things in the UK. We do them by consent... and it would be discriminatory."
Conservative MP William Wragg recently criticised Zahawi for claiming that vaccine passports were not discriminatory, remarking: "What a load of rubbish... I do not believe that my hon. Friend believes a word he just uttered, because I remember him stating very persuasively my position, which we shared at the time, that this measure would be discriminatory. Yet he is sent to the Despatch Box to defend the indefensible."
- February 22nd and 23rd: Johnson open to ‘covid status certification' -
Johnson had said the issue: "There are deep and complex issues that we need to explore, ethical issues about what the role is for government in mandating people to have such things or indeed banning from people doing such a thing."
"I know the fervent libertarians will object but other people will think that there is case for it," Johnson said, comparing domestic passes for pubs and theatres to travelling to countries which "insist on evidence that you've been inoculated against yellow fever".
- March 25th: Vaccine passports shouldn't be alien concepts to us -
Johnson's language hardened in March, determining that "the basic concept of vaccine certification should not be totally alien to us", and appearing to abnegate responsibility, claimed that "individual publicans" may demand them.
- April 4th: No papers for pints -
However, the following month Johnson confirmed that domestic vaccine passports would not be needed when restrictions would start to be lifted in April.
- July 6th and 16th: Domestic vaccine passports attempt an entry via the backdoor -
Despite saying they would not be mandatory, Johnson suggested that nightclubs and other "businesses and events can certainly make use of certification and the NHS app gives you a Covid pass as one way to show your Covid status". While updated government advise suggested that pubs, restaurants, and bars use the NHS's COVID Pass app to screen clients.
- July 19th: So much for ‘freedom day', as Boris announces vaccine passports for nightclubs -
On the day Britons had expected to enjoy the relaxation of most restrictions, Boris Johnson announced that double vaccination - not proof of recent immunity or a negative test, as is common even in European countries that have introduced domestic passports - would be the only means by which people could enter nightclubs and other large venues.
- July 27th: Some form of certification is the right way to go -
Despite vehemently denying that the government was planning vaccine passports just seven months before, Gove backed the prime minister's plans and stated that "some form of certification" was "the right way to go", adding: "I believe that the case for certification overall is a strong one."
- September 5th and 9th: Vaccine minister doubles down on their introduction, but claims it ‘pains' him to do so -
"...the right thing to do is to introduce [vaccine passports] by the end of September when all over 18 year-olds have had their two jabs," Zahawi said on the Sunday, before saying in the Commons chamber the following Wednesday: "It pains me to have to stand at the Despatch Box and implement something that goes against the DNA of this Minister and his Prime Minister, but we are living through difficult and unprecedented times."
"[It] is difficult for me to do, and goes against everything I believe in, but nevertheless is the right thing to do," he added.
- September 12th: no vaccine passports for England... -
Health Secretary Sajid Javid rules out vaccine passports for the end of September...
- September 13th: for now... -
...for now, clarifies Work and Pensions Minister Thérèse Coffey who said that the measure remains a "potential tool" and they "haven't been ruled out forever".
On Tuesday, Boris Johnson is set to reveal his Covid Winter plan, during which he is expected to say that options that could be deployed in the event of rising cases are mandatory mask-wearing in public enclosed spaces and work-at-home guidance. While Number 10 said that another lockdown was not entirely ruled out, but remains a "last resort".
"We are in a very different place than where we were previously when other lockdowns were introduced, thanks to the success of our vaccine programme and other things like therapeutics treatments for coronavirus.
"We would only ever consider those sort of measures as a last resort and we will set out in more detail tomorrow what our approach will be should we see a significant increase in cases," the prime minister's spokesman told reporters on Monday.