People could have their vaccine status or their latest Covid test result put on their NHS app – though the government is considering whether to ban businesses from making access to services conditional on vaccinations.
Boris Johnson said he understood “fervent libertarians” might object to a Covid certification system for England – a phrase that could raise eyebrows among some of his backbenchers. However, he said there was “a case for it” when people needed to prove their status.
However, the prime minister also said people could be unable – or have “genuinely refused to have” a vaccine and that raised ethical issues.
“I think that’s a mistake. I think everyone should have a vaccine but we need to thrash all this out and we’ve got time,” he said.
A review into whether “Covid status certificates” could be used by hospitality and events venues was announced by Johnson on Monday, despite such a scheme being denied by ministers in the weeks leading up to the review’s announcement.
“This is an area where we’re looking at a novelty for our country. We haven’t had stuff like this before,” Johnson said during a school visit on Tuesday.
“We’ve never thought in terms of having something that you have to show to go to a pub or a theatre, so there are deep and complex issues that we need to explore. Ethical issues about what the role is for government in mandating people to have such things, or indeed banning people from doing such a thing. There are complex issues we need to work out.”
Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, will chair the review into the status certificates, Johnson confirmed.
“I know fervent libertarians will object but other people will think there’s a case for it,” he said. “When you look at the international side of things, international travel, there’s no question that that’s where a lot of countries will be going and they will be insisting on vaccine passports, in the way that people used to insist on evidence you’d been inoculated against yellow fever or whatever, so it’s going to come on the international stage, whatever.”
It is understood the government has not ruled out banning businesses from discriminating against customers who could not prove they had been vaccinated.
Ministers are also looking to set out parameters about how employers can operate with regards to vaccination and testing. Some employers such as Pimlico Plumbers have already said they will require staff to be vaccinated. There are concerns that people could feel they will lose access to services and the review will look at what protections can be put in place.
One option understood to be under consideration is that a person’s status could be updated to the NHS test and trace app that is already available. That could mean someone goes for a test that establishes they do not have Covid and a business or other authority could check the app.
No 10 has stressed the certificates are intended to use for both mass testing and vaccinations. Sources have suggested ministers hope to avoid scenarios where vaccination is the only way to gain access to do something – and have stressed the importance of testing and vaccine being combined.
The rights group Liberty has said the concept of vaccine passports “risks riding roughshod over our rights”.
Sam Grant, the head of policy and campaigns, said: “Ministers have flip-flopped on the idea of immunity passports for months before quickly backing out again when faced with immense backlash.
“Renaming them ‘status certificates’ does nothing to address the fact that they would create a two-tier society where some people can access support and freedoms, while others are shut out – with the most marginalised among us hardest hit.”