The biggest question facing Boris Johnson at this evening’s press conference was so-called vaccine passports. Plans for his scheme were briefed to the weekend press. The Sunday Telegraph even published a government-supplied image of what a passport would look like (above). Today, No. 10 released even more plans — hence the questions. But bizarrely, the Prime Minister was unable to admit to this vaccine passports, and pretended to be confused by the questions. This matters. If he cannot acknowledge his flagship scheme, leaving such an indefensible gulf between what what his government has just published and what he has just said, he may already be in some political trouble.
His ministers use ‘vaccine passport’ as a euphemism but even this sounded awful to him. He referred to his plans as ‘Covid status certification’. But a certificate doesn’t have someone’s photo on it. What he is planning is a digital identity card – but loaded with personal health data, so a bioidentity card. The BBC’s Ian Watson asked about whether he would ‘like to take this opportunity to reassure sceptics that while they could be useful for big events, you will not need to take a certificate to the local pub to gain entry.’ Boris Johnson’s reply:
A very important thing to say to everybody listening and watching is that there is absolutely no question of people being asked to produce certification or a Covid status report when they go to the shops or to the pub garden or the hairdressers or whatever… on Monday.
A disingenuous response. No one was asking about Monday. It’s about the new system he left Michael Gove is charge of, for use in the summer when his final 21 June roadmap deadline has passed. The conclusion of the government’s first lockdown review, published today, primarily looks at vaccine passports and international travel. It clearly says that vaccine identity cards could be demanded ‘in hospitality settings’ — in other words, in pubs. Contrary to what some of the weekend papers had been briefed and contrary to the thrust of the question. So a passport for the pub is a live idea. Boris really ought to have been honest about that, and explained why he thinks it’s worth considering.
Perhaps he evaded the question because the official explanation, as printed in today’s paper, is so absurd: that landlords and others are loudly demanding vaccine passports. So the pressure comes from them! Promise! Not at all to do with Michael Gove! The actual words used by today’s paper say that it is ‘right that the government provides a means of easily demonstrating Covid status.’ But are employers really crying out for immunity passports? Other than Pimlico Plumbers, who have threatened a ‘no jab, no job’ policy, the PM would struggle to name many examples.
These press conferences don’t offer much scrutiny because the journalists can’t come back with a second question if — as happened with Ian Watson — the PM answers a different question to the one asked. But if the issue is important enough, the next journalist can pick up on it, as ITV’s Shehab Khan then did:
I appreciate the plan to introduce vaccine passports isn’t coming in the next few steps [out of lockdown]. To expand on that idea: do you think it’s fair to expect people to show a certificate to do something that was once a normal activity?
In other words, is the PM seriously expecting businesses to turn people away who don’t have a vaccine certificate?
So again, Boris was being asked to defend his just-published plan. Again, he ran. ‘I direct you to what you said to Ian,’ he replied. Why? His response to Ian Watson had specifically been about Monday — Khan was asking about what comes later this year. Then, Boris thought of another deflection. ‘You’re taking too many fences at once,’ he said — as if Khan was making the whole thing up.
Too many fences? His own review lays out precisely that proposal Khan mentioned — using immunity status to dictate the freedoms to which citizens are entitled. ‘When we have proposals, we will be setting them out.’ Again, an evasion. Newspapers have been full of proposals for vaccine ID cards, hence yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph front page. Worse, officials serving in his own review into ID cards have been told that it’s no longer up for debate because ‘the Prime Minister wants them’. Johnson’s personal word is being used to stop discussion internally. How, after this, can he pretend it’s not happening?
Sky’s Beth Rigby was next at the press conference. Not so long ago, she said, he laid out ‘a roadmap to freedom’. Now something different is emerging — it’s a roadmap to a ‘papers, please’ society. What happened?
‘A great deal depends on the vaccine rollout,’ he replied. Again: wrong. None of his passport plans, as published today or briefed over the weekend, depend on the vaccine rollout. ‘If things continue to go well, for many people in many ways, our life will begin to get back to some semblance of normality. We’ve got to be guided by the data and follow the roadmap.’
His official review goes far further, suggesting social distancing guidelines may be used to punish pubs and other places that do not implement vaccine passports. (As ever, in our new Orwellian world, the reverse language is used: restrictions will be lifted for those who comply):
It is possible that COVID-status certification could also play a role in reducing social distancing requirements in other settings which people tend to visit more frequently, for example in hospitality settings.
What does this mean? What’s the point of spending £2.6 million on a new communications centre if the PM is going to refuse to properly communicate? If the Prime Minister cannot level with the public, if internal debate about this has been banned in his cabinet committee, where will the scrutiny come from?
We had enough questions asked about vaccine passports today to know that the PM cannot, or will not, answer them. Given the ferocity of the debate ahead — and the depth of concern in his party — this bodes ill.
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