Published:

What a week it’s been for the Government. With the furore around whether or not Downing Street had a party – or three – the Electoral Commission’s verdict on Boris Johnson’s wallpaper and the arrival of his and Carrie Johnson’s baby daughter, the media has had no end of things to write about.

Unfortunately for the Government, much more negative attention is on its way, due to a growing Conservative rebellion around Coronavirus vaccine passports, which, on Wednesday, Johnson announced would be implemented in England (in what some have called a “diversionary tactic”). 

Although Conservative MPs have been generally supportive of measures to combat Coronavirus, from the Emergency Powers Bill to curfews, something about the passports has pushed them to their limits.

Tens of Conservatives, including Dehenna Davison, Andrew Bridgen and Johnny Mercer have tweeted their disapproval of vaccine passports (which have been introduced in Scotland and Wales), with William Wragg, a member of the Covid Recovery Group, being so brazen as to call for Sajid Javid to “resign” over the latest measures. Expect a mega rebellion on passports on Tuesday, when they’ll be voted on, with talks of up to 100 MPs rejecting the plans.

The Government’s justification for passports has been the quickly-spreading Omicron variant, which has prompted it to unleash its “Plan B” set of restrictions. This includes asking people to work from home when they can from next Monday, as well as making masks compulsory in many indoor settings; two requirements that have received much less, albeit some, criticism compared to passports.

Part of the reason why MPs may have become more concerned about these is the events elsewhere in Europe, which have brought into sharp focus how illiberal restrictions can become. Austria’s decision to make vaccines mandatory has been a wake up call – to say the least. The more cynical will say that some MPs are simply using passports as an opportunity to kick Johnson when he’s down, having disapproved of his policies for a while.

My own view, in regards to the introduction of vaccine passports, is one of mild disbelief that the Government ever contemplated them in the first place, never mind that Johnson said there should be a “national conversation” on mandatory jabs. 

There seem to be far more arguments against passports than those in favour (many of which are based on emotional reasoning – “well I like the idea” – and a desire to conform – “well France has done it”). They are divisive, literally separating society into two; don’t completely stop transmission; no one knows where the cut off point for such passports should be (flu?) and will make life complicated and miserable, with large economic consequences. The Night Time Industries Association has already said passes have caused a 30 and 26 per cent trade drop-off in Scotland and Wales, respectively.

Perhaps the most worrying thing, though, is we simply don’t know the long-term impact. Passports are one giant experiment, which we have discussed with all the seriousness of whether someone should change bank accounts.

In general, vaccine passports seem to symbolise a wider issue with the Government, in the Covid wars, which is that it hasn’t completely decided how to be “Global Britain” yet. Post-Brexit it has the opportunity to show the world a different approach to the pandemic; one that respects civil liberties, and isn’t so far away from Sweden’s more relaxed strategy. Instead, we seem to be “Herd Britain”, constantly keeping an eye on what France and Germany are up to, with a view to emulating them.

Either way, something has changed in the equation. The crucial question next week is how the Government groups the votes on “Plan B”. If MPs can vote on vaccine passports as a lone category, it makes it far easier for the idea to be shot down. On the other hand, if vaccine passports, masks and working from home are placed into a single “Plan B” vote, the Government might find all of its plans in disarray; as Bridgen warned “I will vote against any legislation that sees [passports’] introduction“. That, or it’ll be easier to sell to Labour, which is pro restrictions. Whatever the case, we need a cut off point as to how far measures can go; viva the vaccine passport rebels, I say.