Plan under consideration as Boris Johnson tells MPs landlords should set criteria for entry
Pubs could be allowed to ditch social distancing rules and allow people to crowd together as long as they check customers’ Covid status on entry, the Guardian understands.
Details of the proposed incentive emerged as Boris Johnson told MPs he believed landlords should be able to set the criteria for entering their establishments.
The comments from Johnson, a far stronger endorsement of the widespread use of Covid certification than has previously been made by the prime minister, prompted an immediate backlash from some Conservative MPs, who called it “a dangerous path”.
Johnson said he believed Covid certification had the backing of the British people who understood the need for protective measures, and suggested he backed a more wide-ranging use for vaccine passports, which a committee led by Michael Gove is currently investigating.
The government’s review into social distancing measures, due to report in June, is currently considering whether allowing venues that demand Covid status on entry – which includes either a recent test or proof of vaccine – could be allowed to relax all rules on social distancing.
That move would mean many pubs would be able to operate far more profitably, and is likely to be an incentive for citizens to get vaccinated or tested.
A Whitehall source stressed the consultation was in its early stages and that no decision had been made, but said it was a measure being considered as part of the social distancing review ordered by Johnson when he set out the roadmap for easing restrictions. A separate review is also looking at how Covid certification could work in practice.
The consultation on certification is understood to be looking at whether an NHS app could be modified to allow people to show whether they had been recently tested or vaccinated against Covid-19.
The PM’s comments could kickstart a bigger Commons rebellion at a vote on Thursday to renew the Coronavirus Act until October – a period that some MPs say should be shortened – and put the roadmap regulations into law.
Johnson said there was already widespread use of similar requirements in medical professions. “I do think that the basic concept of vaccine certification should not be totally alien to us because, after all, when you are entrusted with the care of a patient and you’re a surgeon, you’re expected to have a vaccination against hepatitis B,” he said.
“The principle is that this is a particularly contagious disease. It can be very nasty indeed. We’ve seen what happened in care homes as we were discussing earlier. It doesn’t seem to me to be irresponsible at all for care home companies to think of requiring vaccinations.”
Johnson said he was content for pubs to insist on vaccine passports in order for entry. “I think that that’s the kind of thing that may be up to individual publicans,” he said. “I find myself in this long national conversation thinking very deeply about it and I think the public have been thinking very deeply about it.
“And my impression is that there is a huge wisdom in the public’s feeling about this and people instinctively recognise when something is dangerous and they can see that Covid is collectively a threat, and they want us as their government and me as the prime minister to take all the actions I can to protect them.”
The Tory MP William Wragg, who was questioning Johnson at the liaison committee, said he could not imagine the prime minister supporting the certification “in a past life” as a Daily Telegraph columnist.
Steve Baker, the Conservative deputy chair of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic MPs, said it was deeply concerning.
“Whether the state legislates for it, recommends it or simply allows it the result will be the same,” he said.
“A two-tier Britain that prevents pregnant women from taking part in society, given that the government is telling them not to take the vaccine, or one where we turn back the clock and tolerate businesses turning away customers from communities which have shown an unfortunate hesitancy to take up the offer of a vaccine. We must not fall into this ghastly trap.”
Johnson signalled in his evidence that the dates set in his roadmap – for a phased easing of lockdown restrictions on 12 April, 17 May and 21 June – were still on track, and had not been disrupted by the reopening of schools in England at the start of March.
“There’s no sign in the data that causes me to believe, at this stage, that we’re going to have to deviate from that roadmap to freedom,” he said.
Baker, who has said he is likely vote against the renewal of the Coronavirus Act on Thursday, said it was “a rare opportunity for MPs to say no to a new way of life in a checkpoint society, under extreme police powers, that we would not have recognised at the beginning of last year”.
He plans to table an amendment to revoke some of the police powers in section 21 of the act, including to take action against “potentially infectious” people.
Baker said the powers “which have a 100% unlawful prosecution record, must be considered ‘redundant’ to say the very least”.
A number of MPs also pressed Johnson on an inquiry into the pandemic. Asked about mistakes he had made in the early weeks, he said: “I think there are all sorts of things that I look back on and I wonder whether we could have done differently. I wouldn’t want to make a mistake about my biggest mistake and single out the wrong one.
“We didn’t get the effect of the asymptomatic transmission which fed into the care homes epidemic. We’re learning the whole time and what we want is a proper inquiry.”
Johnson also said he would like the inquiry to examine how the messaging worked in each of the devolved nations, which have often had different rules and restrictions at different times.
“I think there will be a time when we can look back and evaluate the way the messaging worked and the impact of the way we did it and that will be one of the things I know that we’ll be looking at in the inquiry,” he said.