Boris Johnson was urged to ditch plans for domestic ‘immunity passports’ by his expert advisers, documents published tonight show (file image)
Boris Johnson was urged to ditch plans for domestic ‘vaccine passports’ by his expert advisers, documents published tonight show.
The controversial plans would have seen people refused entry to hospitality, nightclubs and other mass events unless they could prove they had already caught and beat Covid, were vaccinated or had a negative test.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warned the scheme could lead to people purposefully trying to catch Covid, fake test results or cause widespread unrest and discrimination.
No10 flirted with the idea of making proof of immunity cards mandatory in pubs and restaurants when it started planning its roadmap out of lockdown earlier this year.
It later shifted the focus of the system to the reopening of theatres, sports venues, nightclubs and other mass events.
But reviews carried out by SAGE in recent months show there were a number of concerns about the reliability of immunity passports and their potential harms.
The subgroup Nervtag said defining immunity was difficult and the only two reliable ways was for someone to show a recent negative PCR test or proof of vaccination.
It warned rapid lateral flows, the backbone of the UK Government’s testing strategy, were too unreliable. The same was true for antibody tests, it said.
Meanwhile, the behavioural team on SAGE found people given immunity certificates appeared more likely to go and mingle with others and risk fuelling Covid’s spread. SPI-B warned that some people would purposefully go and catch the virus to get their papers.
It also said that making the documents mandatory would penalise ethnic minorities, who are less likely to get tested or apply for official documents due to a deep-rooted distrust in Government.
It comes as Boris Johnson heralded the end of social distancing rules, mask laws and the work from home order tonight as he pushed the button on a ‘big bang’ Freedom Day, warning that it is now or never to unlock.
The Prime Minister floated the idea of extending a new ‘Covid certification scheme’ to the hospitality sector in March.
Officials suggested that venues deploying the policy could be allowed to relax social distancing rules in return.
But the plans were met with a furious backlash from Tory MPs and parts of the hospitality industry about the idea of forcing people to produce ‘papers for the pub’.
Time for the bar! From table service to working from home, those changing rules
Boris Johnson tonight firmed up plans for unlocking England on July 19.
The PM used a press conference to confirm a bonfire of virus rules and restrictions from the so-called Freedom Day, saying individuals will again be able to judge the risks of coronavirus for themselves.
However, he did not have any decisive announcements in key areas, with no date for quarantine requirements to be waived for double-jabbed Brits travelling to ‘amber list’ countries.
There was also no confirmation that self-isolation can be replaced with testing for the fully-vaccinated.
And although there was a clear intention for bubble rules in schools to be axed, it is not expected to happen until September when the new term starts.
WHAT THE PM ANNOUNCED:
Pubs and restaurants
Hospitality venues in England will no longer be required to collect track and trace data from July 19. Businesses won’t have to ask customers to scan a QR code using the NHS phone app on entry or to hand over their contact details, although they will have the option of continuing to do so if they wish. Mandatory table service rules will also be scrapped, meaning drinkers will be able to order at the bar again in pubs.
Wearing masks will become voluntary everywhere apart from hospitals and other health facilities from July 19 in England. Public transport passengers, shoppers and those visiting pubs, restaurants, cinemas and theatres will no longer be required by law to cover up. However, people may still be encouraged to wear masks in some enclosed places where they come into close contact with each other, for example on London Tube trains.
Work from home
The official guidance telling people to ‘work from home if you can’ will be scrapped on July 19 in England. But it will be left up to employers and their staff to decide whether they have to go back to their desks. Ministers will not launch a campaign encouraging staff back to the office and are resigned to there not being a mass return to workplaces this summer.
AND WHAT THE PM DIDN’T ANNOUNCE
Ministers have been working on a system to open up holiday destinations for double-jabbed Britons.
People who have had both vaccine doses could no longer have to quarantine for ten days after visiting amber list countries, such as Spain, France and Greece.
However, there is not set to be any definitive news on the rules tonight and Government sources have cautioned the July 19 date is ‘ambitious’.
TEST AND TRACE
Pressure has been growing for people who have received both coronavirus vaccine doses to be spared isolating at home for ten days if they have come into contact with someone who tested positive.
They could be offered lateral flow tests to do themselves at home instead.
However, ministers have not come to a conclusion on whether to go ahead, and it is understood a new system is very unlikely to be in place for July 19.
The bubbles system that has seen whole classes or year groups sent home if just one pupil tests positive for coronavirus will be scrapped in England.
Ministers are planning to announce a new way of handling outbreaks.
Instead of sending children home en masse, those who have come into contact with a positive case are likely to be given daily tests.
Few expect the arrangements to start until the new school year in September, although Sajid Javid sparked confusion by telling MPs tonight that it could happen on July 19.
The scheme would’ve also seen people allowed entry if they had had Covid in the previous six months.
It was later ditched and planned to only be implemented at mass events – such as sports events, music concerts, festivals and comedy nights.
That idea, too, was then scrapped by the time the Government ran its pilot events in May, where the scheme was simplified so that people could get in with just a negative lateral flow result taken within days before the event.
SPI-B highlighted its concerns about the scheme in an undated paper published tonight.
The group said that offering access to settings and activities by showing proof of previous infection may ‘lead to deliberate exposure to infection’.
It warned that people may also deliberately stop social distancing and handwashing if the incentive is to prove they have had Covid and cannot afford to pay for a test.
The group also highlighted that the scheme could lead to unrest.
‘Certification is likely to be unwelcome if it restricts access to goods, services and places regarded as essential or accessible as a matter of right,’ SPI-B said.
‘Any form of certification that restricts people from behaviours or access to places which they use habitually or which they regard it as their right to enter is likely to provoke resistance.’
It added: ‘Certification will inevitably present opportunities for various sorts of crime, especially fraud.’
SAGE concluded that high vaccination coverage and access to free lateral flow tests would simplify the programme and reduce many of the potential harms.
It comes as the Prime Minister set out a post-lockdown Britain at tonight’s Downing Street press conference.
In a bold shift despite daily Covid cases rising a fifth in a week to 27,000, the PM told a Downing Street briefing that they could hit 50,000.
But he insisted even though the pandemic ‘certainly won’t be over’ by July 19 and people should not be ‘demob happy’ the government will no longer issue ‘top down’ orders.
Mr Johnson insisted he had to ‘balance the risks… the risks of the disease, and the risks of continuing with restrictions’.
‘If we don’t go ahead now when we we’ve clearly done so much with the vaccination programme to break the link between infection and death.
‘If we don’t go ahead now when the summer firebreak is coming up, the school holidays, all the advantages that that should give us in fighting the virus, then the question is, ”when would we go ahead?”.
‘Particularly given the likelihood the virus will have an extra advantage in the colder months, in the autumn, and in the winter.
‘So we run the risk of either opening up at a very difficult time when the virus has an edge, has an advantage in the colder months, or again putting everything off to next year so I do think it’s going to be a very balanced decision next week.’
The one-metre plus decree and advice to work from home where possible will be dropped, with mask wearing no longer mandatory – while pubs and other venues will not have to collect customer details and will again be able to serve drinks at the bar.
Mr Johnson also said limits on gatherings are going and torpedoed the idea of legally requiring ‘Covid certificates’ at bars and restaurants, with the vaccination drive instead being trusted to do the heavy lifting of protecting the public.
The news was warmly welcomed by the hospitality industry and other sectors that have been hammered by the crisis.
However, although the premier said he intends to replace self-isolation with testing for anyone who is double jabbed and comes into contact with a positive case, he did not say when that would happen and it is understood it will probably be after July 19. Children would also be covered by the arrangements.
Mr Johnson also said an announcement will be made later in the week on dropping the ‘bubble’ rules that have been causing chaos in schools. There have been signs that the change will only take effect at the start of next term in September – although Sajid Javid suggested tonight that it could happen this month.
The PM stopped short of confirming that quarantine requirements for ‘amber list’ countries will be waived for double-jabbed Brits from July 19. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is expected to make an announcement later in the week.
The plan for the final stage of the roadmap will be subject to a final approval next Monday, although it appears it would take something extraordinary to change the PM’s mind at this stage. The UK today recorded another 27,334 cases – up nearly a fifth on the same day last week – but deaths remained in single figures at nine.
The government has also said it will ‘maintain contingency plans for reimposing economic and social restrictions at a local, regional or national level’ in case the situation deteriorates.
Meanwhile, doubts have been raised over whether mask-wearing will be completely scrapped this month, even though the law will fall away. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has refused to say whether he will keep the rules on the Tube, while Manchester mayor Andy Burnham has demanded a rethink to protect the vulnerable. Unions warned it would be ‘gross negligence’ to drop the requirement.
Government sources suggested that in theory train companies and businesses could keep demanding face coverings are worn, even if the law is changed. Nicola Sturgeon has also suggested that the rules could continue for longer in Scotland.
Asked whether he would keep wearing masks, Mr Johnson said it would ‘depend on the circumstances’ – pointing out that a crowded Tube train is very different from a deserted late-night service.
Prof Chris Whitty – flanking the PM as usual at the briefing – said he would don a covering if other people were ‘uncomfortable’.