Nightclubs have few friends in politics. The opening year or so of the pandemic made that perfectly clear, when they were shuttered and then left all but unmentioned, any potential reopening pinned as a last order of business.
Despite that, judging by the state of the battle over vaccine passports it doesn’t look as if the Government’s bid to impose them on the nightlife sector is going to succeed.
It may be that opponents of the plan, on all sides of the House, are swivel-eyed libertarian loons. Andrew Rawnsley compares them to defenders of drunk driving or smoking in pubs.
But normally, when facing off against such people, the Government has a clear (if not always compelling) public health narrative of its own. Whereas its difficult to tease out, from the news coverage or even Hansard, what the motivation for vaccine passports actually is. Speaking in the Commons yesterday, Nadhim Zahawi claimed that:
“The view of our clinical experts is that the additional relative safety of people having to be doubled vaccinated before they can enter a nightclub does begin to mitigate super-spreader events, which could cause us, in effect, to take a decision to close nightclubs, which we would not want to do.”
But a report from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, quoted by Alistair Carmichael in the Times, says that the Government has “failed to give any scientific evidence backing up its claims that requiring Covid passports are necessary to reopen the economy and society”.
Nor is that the only apparent hole in the plans. When Jeff Smith asked Zahawi an important and quite simple question – “how does he define a nightclub, as opposed to a late bar with a DJ playing music?” – the minister did not answer him. Chris Bryant likewise stressed that there is no legal definition of nightclub to build the policy on. Little wonder the industry anticipates huge disruption if it goes ahead.
Another absence from the Government’s case was any clear idea of when it would deem the need for vaccine passports to have passed. The closest Zahawi seemed to get was suggesting it would be when the UK is in “a place where I can stand here and say, hand on heart, that we have transitioned this virus and that it is no longer a pandemic”. But when is that? Who can say.
Questions like these are why proper legislative scrutiny of emergency coronavirus powers can be so important. It isn’t just about holding the Executive to account, it’s also a simple matter of trying to ensure proper rigour in policymaking. It is much harder to imagine the Government getting away with introducing a passport scheme with neither clear target businesses nor any exit conditions if MPs needed to vote for it.
In truth, it looks as though the main incentive for the policy is, as some other Cabinet ministers have hinted, to incentive young people to get jabbed. But the Government can’t openly say so, and as a result must resort to unconvincing bluster that doesn’t stand up in the House of Commons. Assailed from all sides, the plan seems likely to fall.
Nonetheless, perhaps the minority of politicos who actually enjoy clubbing should make the best of things whilst the going is good. Because if ministers do end up doing as Zahawi suggested and just shuttering the sector again, recent experience suggests that will generate far less backlash in Westminster than their ‘papers, please’ alternative.