Case study : Liberty and vaccine passports

Liberty is an independent organisation that seeks to challenge injustice, defend freedom and provide policy responses on a wide range of issues that have implications for human rights and civil liberties.

As the vaccine roll-out took effect in the UK, Liberty campaigned against government proposals for ‘vaccine passports’ – potentially in the form of ‘NHS Covid passes’ — used as part of the UK’s route out of pandemic-related restrictions.

In July 2021 Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced that businesses and large events would be ‘encouraged’, but not required, to use the vaccine passports. The government subsequently stated that it might consider mandating their use in some settings if ‘sufficient measures are not taken to limit infection’.

In August 2021, Liberty rejected the notion that vaccine passports were an innocuous ‘panacea’, instead referring to them as a ‘serious reinvention of our relationship to the state and potentially to our employers’. Liberty maintained that the understandable eagerness with which people embraced the vaccine programme should not be undermined by a ‘coercive approach’ that could marginalise those most confused by the often contradictory official messaging. In addition, those least trusting of government guidance, who also ‘rely on work that is precarious’, are the ones whose rights and autonomy would be most affected. Liberty explained that:

If you face routine police discrimination, if you or members of your community have suffered from the hostile environment’s web of surveillance that spreads through health care and other services, if you have been subjected to continuous failures in the welfare system, it might cause concern when asked to participate in Government programmes that affect your health choices, bodily autonomy and personal privacy.

In a move supported by the British Medical Association and the GMB Union, Liberty also highlighted the inception of ‘vaccine mandates’ for certain categories of workers, especially those involved in social care. Liberty explained that many who had ‘risked their health and well-being on the frontline throughout this pandemic’, those in precarious employment, yet often staffing critical sectors, were the most likely to face ‘punitive measures’.

For Liberty, vaccine passports and vaccine mandates are the products of a government that prioritises ‘coercion and punishment rather than care and support’ and one that has ‘failed to protect everyone equally’.

However, in September 2021:

  • The Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that in response to Scotland’s ‘fragile and serious’ situation of record rises in Covid cases, vaccine passports would be required on entry to nightclubs, indoor live events with more than 4,000 unseated attendees, and any events hosting more than 10,000 people. Despite representatives of the nightclub sector criticising the scheme as ‘not fit for purpose’, enforcement of the vaccine passport scheme commenced on 18 October 2021.

  • In England, Nadhim Zahawi, minister for Covid vaccine deployment, announced that ‘vaccine passports’ in nightclubs and other indoor venues in England would be required by the end of the month, as well as for sites with large crowds, as all over-18s would have been offered two jabs by then. However, a few days later on 12 September 2021, Sajid Javid, the health secretary, announced instead that plans to introduce vaccine passports for access into nightclubs and large events in England would not go ahead.