Where do businesses stand regarding vaccine passports?

In recent weeks, there have been calls from the public and businesses across the UK for the government to look at whether they should introduce its ‘Plan B’ to tackle the latest wave of coronavirus infections.

It is no secret that vaccines and how the pandemic has been managed have elicited very strong emotions and opinions on both sides of the divide, and seemingly no matter what decision is made, many have been left angry.

To understand where the business community stands and what they believe is the best way through this part of the pandemic, Business Leader spoke to some industry experts, and found out what the future might hold.

What is the Government’s ‘Plan B’?

Despite the relaxation of coronavirus restrictions over the summer, the pandemic is far from over. And with the winter months upon us, the UK’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam warned the public of many ‘hard months to come’.

Although Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak announced earlier this month that there were no immediate plans to put any Covid-restrictions in place, the Government wouldn’t rule them out if cases continued to rise.

In the final week of October, daily cases rose to over 50,000. Even though the cases have fluctuated between 30,000 to 40,000 this month, many healthcare experts are concerned about rising cases as Christmas approaches and flu season kicks in.

The Government’s scientific advisory group Sage, the NHS Confederation and the British Medical Association have all called for action – with Sage stating that the UK should be ready for ‘rapid deployment’ of ‘Plan B’.

But, what is Plan B?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and various members of his senior leadership have stated on multiple occasions that the UK will not be put under any new lockdown measures – but some ‘extra measures’ would be put in place should there be a need.

This is the Plan B restrictions.

These include making face coverings mandatory again in public places, advising the majority of people to work from home, and regular updates from the Prime Minister on the best practices to counter the spread of the virus – much like it was at the height of the pandemic.

Should hospitalisation and infection rates rise, or the NHS becomes overwhelmed – these restrictions could come into place.

However, also part of Plan B would be the introduction of compulsory Covid-19 passports – perhaps the most controversial and hotly-debated part of the plan.

The mandatory passport was initially due to be introduced in England at the end of September, but those plans were dropped.

Currently, a British person can prove their Covid-19 status via the NHS app, and generate their ‘NHS Covid Pass’, which shows vaccination status and/or negative test results.

These are currently used for travel and for some events around the UK.

The Covid-19 Passport would see this evolve into a mandatory proof of negative test and double vaccination to access venues across the country.

Current state of COVID-19 vaccination in the UK

Health Secretary Sajid Javid stated that there are currently no plans to implement Plan B – although he did warn in early November that should there be a declining take up in Covid-19 vaccinations, then it would become more likely.

As of November 16, 68.5% of the population (around 46 million people) have received both doses of the vaccine. According to a report from the Government, released on the same day, a further 13 million people have been offered their booster shot so far.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) nine in ten people in the UK have either been vaccinated or have anti-bodies from recovering from a positive test – but with millions heading back to the office full time and lives returning to ‘normal’ – would a Covid-19 passport help curb rising infection rates? And how will anti-vax supporters react in public and in the workplace?

Should vaccine passports be introduced?

With health, legal and ethical considerations often in conflict when discussing the introduction of a Covid-19 passport – the issue can be a minefield for business leaders.

In his column earlier this year, Founder of Pimlico Plumbers Charlie Mullins stated: “We all know the answer is vaccine passports, but Boris and Co can’t even say the words out loud in public.

“The logic is clear. If vaccines are the answer, and they are, which is why the UK has doubled down on getting the population immunised, then being able to prove you are a very low Covid risk must be a good thing.

“So why is it so hard to decide to let businesses create safe zones where everyone in a bar, restaurant, shop, train, plane or bus is unlikely to be ill? Vaccine passports are the way forward, and everybody knows it.

“We need to start working on vaccine passports now so that by the time every adult has been offered a vaccine they can be in use. If we wait, we restrict the ability of the economy to recover and place people at greater risk.”

He continued: “Just like with mask-wearing there are three basic groups: the largest, those who can and do; those who for medical reasons are unable to wear them, and the selfish few who show no regards for others and refuse point-blank.

“Wearing masks protects everyone, and that’s especially true for those who might be at a greater risk of dying from Covid. And it’s the same with vaccines; those who have had them deserve to be able to benefit from playing their part in the UK’s fight back, those who are for good reason unable to have a vaccine deserve our protection also.

“And those who don’t give a damn, well it’s their choice – be part of the solution or stay at home. Undoubtedly, it’s time to say, we need vaccine passports, and we need them now!”

CEO and Founder of Biz Britain, Matt Gubba disagrees with the idea of a Covid-19 passport and highlights the importance of personal freedoms.

He comments: “Aside from them being discriminatory, which is reason in itself why I believe vaccine passports have no place in a free, civilised society, there is the crucial issue of their effectiveness (or lack thereof).

“Almost every European country that has introduced vaccine passports domestically has seen enormous spikes in cases within a short period of their implementation. Were it an effective strategy, we would see the opposite. Also, given we know the vaccines do not completely prevent either infection or transmission, one can only conclude their purpose is not to reduce the spread of coronavirus directly but to coerce further uptake of the vaccines.

“This kind of government coercion should not be taking place in what I’ve always believed us to be; a liberal democracy. People should be free to make their own choices safe from the threat that the nanny state may exclude them from society at any moment.”

Impact on businesses

Whether a Covid-19 passport will come to fruition is up for debate, but another delicate subject is around the issue of enforced vaccinations.

Business Leader spoke to the Founder of Groubook, Bradley Gough, who has been vocal about the impacts that vaccine passports might have for businesses using them.

He comments: “A lot of people are arguing that vaccine passports will be a viable solution to encourage more people out into public spaces again. It would also allow more businesses to remain open, with fewer incidents of isolation, by making sure that restaurants, bars, and nightclubs don’t become Covid hotspots.

“However, the scannable online generated or printed paper codes will raise a lot of technical, ethical, and legal questions. Some customers will be happy for the freedom, whilst others may be less willing to use the app, abuse the app or potentially find loopholes in the system.

“Some groups of society have a greater mistrust for the vaccine, meaning that they have declined, or haven’t made their mind up about the vaccine.

“I cannot see many hospitality businesses wanting to implement the vaccine passport at all. Our industry has been at the forefront of economic uncertainty and Covid struggles over the last sixteen months.

“Enforcing and checking passports isn’t the industry’s responsibility, will undoubtedly require more staff on shift and will drive a wedge between customers who haven’t had any dose of the vaccine, those that have had one and those double jabbed. Working in and being a part of hospitality will always remain an inclusive environment. The health status of customers is none of our concern, but it is the government’s responsibility.

“Passing on group responsibility for the aftermath of the pandemic to businesses, venues, and individuals was a bad move. It isn’t fair to everyone working hard day in day out to ensure events, club nights, activities and fun times happen. Unfortunately, I can see that people’s enjoyment of being back out will be used as a scapegoat in a few months, particularly if cases continue to rise.

“The end of the pandemic still seems to be out there on the horizon, as being double jabbed is not a completely effective way to stop spreading the virus. Having both doses does not stop you from getting coronavirus or stop you from spreading it. It can massively reduce levels of infection and seriousness of the case, resulting in fewer fatal cases which may require hospitalisation.

“Interestingly, many people have already faced administrative issues when trying to get their Covid passports ready to show. Some vaccinations hadn’t been recorded properly, despite both doses being received.

“People who haven’t had the full vaccine, either through choice, lack of availability, or those waiting for their second dose, will still want to go out and get together with friends and family. The industry shouldn’t be strong-armed into enforcing it when the likes of retail haven’t.

“The covid passport debate is complex for sure. It is also one that will cause a varying degree of differing opinions, treading the line between unity, utility, and freedom. For now, it still seems like an unthought-through idea from officially scrambling to pass something through after realising the seriousness of opening the whole country back up.”

Another important consideration is the possibility of vaccinated and unvaccinated people having to work together in close proximity, and if Plan B was to be introduced, could you refuse to sit next to somebody who is unvaccinated? In order to find out whether you could refuse to do this, we spoke to Karen Murray, associate at leading law firm Slater & Gordon.

Karen commented: “Vaccine mandates have so far only been applied to frontline NHS workers in England. Under Plan B, mandatory vaccinations certificates would only be necessary for attendees of large nightclubs and large venues.

“Whilst employers have a duty to protect the health and safety of employees, there is a great risk to employers outside of the health and care sectors enforcing mandatory vaccinations. There is a potential for employees to bring claims for unfair dismissal as well as discrimination on the grounds of disability, religion and philosophical beliefs.

“Before making vaccinations compulsory, employers should ascertain whether other less severe actions may be sufficient. They should review their COVID risk assessments and consider reintroducing measures such as wearing masks, access to hand sanitiser, social distancing and improving ventilation. This may avoid vaccinated and unvaccinated people having to work within close proximity.

“If a vaccinated employee refuses to sit next to an unvaccinated employee, they may face disciplinary action for failing to follow a reasonable management request. This would really be taking things a little far, however.

“Before taking any action, an employer should consider the reasons for the employee’s concerns. If the employee has legitimate concerns that sitting next to someone who is unvaccinated puts them at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 (or maybe due to them suffering a medical condition), any resulting disciplinary action may give rise to an unfair dismissal claim or a claim for disability discrimination. Health and Safety law tends to supersede most other legislation and is likely to mean that having a valid or reasonable belief in a risk of infection is a fair reason to refuse to sit next to an unvaccinated person.

“At this stage, it is unclear how the courts and tribunals will deal with claims relating to the vaccination. However, the guidance recommends that employers should encourage and support employees to get vaccinated.”