COVID vaccine passports – impact on the hospitality sector
The leisure and hospitality sector, alongside the retail and aviation sectors, has been one of the sectors most affected during the last 12 months as a consequence of the national lockdowns. Operators have spent millions of pounds ensuring their premises are ‘COVID secure’, have traded when permitted under onerous restrictions, and anecdotally, the number of COVID-19 infections arising from such venues, appears relatively small.
The UK Government’s current roadmap out of lockdown indicates that no earlier than:
- 12 April 2021: Hospitality venues can serve people outdoors, self-catering accommodation can be used and most outdoor attractions, including zoos and theme parks allowed to reopen.
- 17 May 2021: Outdoor performances can resume, cinemas, entertainment venues and the accommodation sector can reopen.
- 21 June 2021: All legal limits on social contact can be withdrawn, and nightclubs will be allowed to reopen.
Many operators may therefore conclude that their businesses are unlikely to be financially profitable until at least 21 June.
One issue currently being reviewed by the UK Government is whether ‘COVID status certification’ or ‘vaccine passports’ are an appropriate tool to assist in fully reopening the economy.
The UK Government initially dismissed such a scheme; Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccine minister suggested such a scheme was “discriminatory”. Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, similarly indicated in the middle of February, that he had no plans to introduce such a scheme for domestic activities such as going to the pub. More recently however, he has described the concept of the using the NHS app to confirm the vaccination status of an individual, as a “novelty” for the UK and a review is being undertaken by Michael Gove.
The obvious concern arising from such a scheme, is that there will inevitably be an element of the population that for various reasons, will elect not to be, or cannot be, vaccinated. Such individuals may find themselves discriminated against, unable to go to the cinema or pub. The UK Government is no doubt keen to avoid the impression of the population being coerced into getting a vaccine.
Operators of such venues might conclude that having invested such significant sums and introduced such stringent measures in ensuring premises are ‘COVID secure’, that requiring them to police such a scheme, is yet another impediment to their return to profitable trade. It places a further burden on staff and potentially a duty to ensure such checks are undertaken. In the event of a COVID-19 outbreak, operators would no doubt be required to evidence these checks as part of their systems.
Such a scheme has the potential to quickly become obsolete. The UK Government’s vaccination programme has undoubtedly been a huge success; by 15 April, the timetable is for 32 million people to have received their first dose of the vaccine, with a further 23 million vaccinated by 31 July. On this basis, around 45 million people will have received their first dose by 21 June. Whilst better protection is provided following a second dose, it is suggested that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine offers protection of 64.1% after at least one standard dose, and the Moderna vaccine can provide 80.2% protection after a single dose.
Therefore, if the passport scheme could be introduced now, allowing venues to reopen sooner than the current timetable suggests, then such a scheme is potentially more beneficial than if it were not to be introduced for a number of months. Further, such a scheme, whilst confirming the vaccination status of an individual, would fall down in the event that a COVID-19 variant arose against which the current vaccines fail to offer protection. The use of lateral flow tests and evidence of a recent negative test, may combat this.
There is also a warning from Unison indicating that they would consider challenging such a scheme if it were used to strong arm employees into compliance. General Secretary, Christina McAnea has said: “Employers can’t be allowed to strong-arm staff into having the jab, and certificates shouldn’t be used as a stick to threaten them”.
There are, of course, a number of considerations to take into account with the concept of a ‘COVID-status certification’ or ‘vaccine passport’. Businesses operating in the leisure and hospitality sector should carefully consider the risks of such a requirement, and should act in a way which is proportionate to their health and safety obligations and responsibilities, while also respecting the personal choice of customers.