Exclusive: Covid passport plans ‘scaled back’ as ministers question health benefits

·4 min read
Mass events such as football matches, concerts, music festivals and big business conferences are likely to have to check the Covid status of attendees - Matt McNulty/Manchester City FC via Getty Images
Mass events such as football matches, concerts, music festivals and big business conferences are likely to have to check the Covid status of attendees - Matt McNulty/Manchester City FC via Getty Images

Plans for Covid passports have been significantly scaled back as government ministers privately question whether they should be adopted at all, The Telegraph understands.

Covid status checks are unlikely to be required for cinemas, small theatres or restaurants, according to latest government thinking, with pubs already ruled out.

A meeting of the Covid Operations (Covid-O) committee last Friday about how status certification should be used in the UK saw concerns aired. Some ministers questioned whether there was a clear health benefit to adopting the scheme and requested more evidence, according to a well-placed source.

Another government source said the merits of the scheme have been called into question as Covid case and hospitalisation figures dropped.

“The mood music has changed over the course of the last few weeks,” said the source, who is familiar with discussions about Covid passports. “This different reality has prompted people saying ‘well actually, I saw the benefit of it before but do we really need it?’”

The Telegraph has spoken to more than half a dozen government figures following Covid passport discussions to get an understanding of what is being considered.

Papers circulated before the Friday meeting lacked any detailed plan for how to fund the scheme and what the exact route will be for gaining parliamentary approval.

Doubts remain about how quickly the NHS app being redesigned to show proof of Covid status will be fully up and running, including being able to show negative test results, and concerns about whether the physical version of any Covid status certificate could be forged, undercutting the safety of the scheme, were raised at the meeting.

At the end of the month, ministers are due to announce the conclusions of their review into whether Covid status certification should be used within the UK.

The concept being explored would mean people have a way to show proof of a Covid vaccine, negative test or natural antibodies. All three mean a person is less likely to catch and spread Covid.

Ministers announced their interest in the scheme in late February and provided an update in early April, which said large events were the focus but left open the use of the passports for hospitality.

It remains likely that mass events such as football matches, concerts, music festivals and big business conferences will be required to check the Covid status of attendees.

Major sporting and cultural bodies have backed the proposals, seeing them as a way to get packed crowds back into large venues. However, enthusiasm among ministers for forcing the checks on more spontaneous social occasions such as eating in a restaurant is much lower.

Mr Johnson confirmed in an interview with The Telegraph last week that pubs will not be forced to make the checks after outcry from hospitality industry bodies.

It also looks unlikely that checks will be required in cinemas after a reopening pilot due to take place at Liverpool’s Luna Cinema was postponed last month. One industry source claimed take-up for the event, an outdoor cinema screening, had been low.

There is already agreement that Covid passports should be used for international travel, given the proof of vaccine requirements adopted by some countries. A rudimentary version of the redesigned NHS app allowing people to show proof of a jab will be available in time for the lifting of the overseas holiday ban on Monday.

But some in the Covid-O are understood to have demanded that government officials produce a more comprehensive explanation for the health benefit of Covid passports in the UK.

There are also doubts about whether the scheme will be fully up and running in time for June 21 – the fourth and final step in Mr Johnon’s reopening roadmap for England.

Covid-O papers circulated before the meeting are understood to have made it clear that legislation in some form would be needed to bring in a mandated passport system. Officials are working on plans for making an amendment to existing legislation – which itself would be controversial given that it would involve less parliamentary scrutiny than a standalone bill.

However, the exact legislative route is yet to be decided. There is unease among some involved in the planning at the scale of the Tory backbench rebellion over Covid passports. Mr Johnson’s working majority of around 80 means that close to 40 Tory rebels could vote against the move and it could still pass, but the scale of discontent is being monitored closely.

Asked to respond to the concerns, a government source stressed that no final decisions had been taken about Covid status certification, adding that scientists have submitted evidence about the potential health benefits of a certification scheme and that major sporting bodies back the proposals.

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