Keir Starmer has dealt a blow to government hopes of pushing through a domestic Covid passport scheme, expressing scepticism about the idea and saying the “British instinct” could be against them.
Ministers are consulting on the possibility of obliging people to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative coronavirus test to access crowded spaces such as pubs or sports events, with Downing Street insisting no decision has been made yet.
The Labour leader, speaking in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, said he would not make any formal decision before studying government proposals, and talked up the need for cross-party consensus.
“I think this is really difficult and I’m not going to pretend there’s a clear black and white, yes-no easy answer on this. It is extremely difficult,” Starmer told the paper.
But while he said the idea of vaccination certificates for international travel appeared inevitable, he suggested that public opinion was likely to be against the idea of a domestic version.
“My instinct is that … [if] we get the virus properly under control, the death rates are near zero, hospital admissions very, very low, that the British instinct in those circumstances will be against vaccine passports,” the Labour leader said.
Starmer also said the government should come up with a policy either way, and not leave the decision to pubs, as mooted by Boris Johnson, saying: “I think this idea that we sort of outsource this to individual landlords is just wrong in principle.”
While his stance remains far from categorical, it will buoy libertarian-minded Conservative MPs who will hope that if Labour opposes domestic vaccine passports – the Lib Dems have already said they will vote against them – then the idea could be defeated in parliament.
Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister who is leading deliberations on the policy, has met a series of MPs over this week before the publication of the interim findings of the panel on vaccine passports, which is due next Monday.
Gove is generally seen as a strong supporter of the scheme. But officials and ministers are said to be divided between whether the certification should apply only to mass events, for which there is broad support, or additionally to smaller venues, which is more controversial.
The plan is to make the certification available on a modified NHS app, which would detail whether a person has had a vaccination, or a recent test, or has antibodies to the virus, having previously tested positive.
Another aspect of the plan being considered is whether making vaccination a condition for pub entry could boost vaccination rates among younger people, when the programme moves to offer them injections in the coming months.