Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir David. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for leading the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee and for further sharing the petitioners’ concerns with us all. As he said, over 290,000 people have signed this e-petition, which shows the strength of feeling across the country, and that includes 700 people in my constituency of Putney. The question of vaccine passports is crucial and complex, but it needs an answer soon, so such debates are welcome. There are so many issues and considerations at play, so I am pleased to be able to contribute on behalf of the Opposition.
We have heard some interesting contributions this afternoon, raising many questions that need to be heard. In opening the debate, my hon. Friend spoke about the concerns of younger people, who have not been offered the vaccine yet, so the timing will be important. We also heard about the concerns of those who might not have the tech needed, such as smartphones, and about the technology of any passport or certificate, especially if it is digital. My right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) talked about the important principle of no medical treatment without consent, about the need to be led by the science and about whether contingency plans are being made for the roll-out of certificates, in parallel with discussions about the ethics in this debate.
Airlines are rolling this out already, so it will be happening—we heard from the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) about Saga Holidays requiring vaccination. How will it be possible to meet this requirement? What documentation will be asked for? There will need to be some answers. Importantly, we also heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley about the impact of getting business back to work and saving jobs. That needs to be a top consideration in this debate.
As Members have said, the success of the vaccine roll-out has been an absolute delight, and I commend all people who worked so hard in creating and distributing the vaccine. They are all heroes. I echo my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), who made clear in a similar debate back in December that the root of a lot of these discussions is vaccine hesitancy. Vaccines are the most effective public health intervention in relation to coronavirus or health in general, and are the ultimate ticket out of this crisis; I think we all agree on that. It is therefore hugely important that a significant proportion of people take up the vaccination, especially those with the greatest vulnerabilities. Like many other Members, I will take up the vaccine as soon as I am offered it.
Those hesitant to take the vaccine should not be mischaracterised as anti-vaxxers. That is not fair or true. Those who spout anti-vaccine conspiracy theories are a very small group of people indeed. A much more significant and noticeable number of people, though far from the majority, are vaccine-hesitant. I have spoken to local GPs in my constituency about this. There may be a number of reasons why people do not want the vaccine, and we need to respect those reasons. Others may not want to do so owing to safety concerns—something I have heard from some of my constituents. They want to be sure that any vaccine, be it for covid-19 or anything else, is safe. We all have a role to play in giving them that confidence.
There are some serious practical matters that the Government should address to help improve the vaccine take-up. For example, the GMB union highlighted that the Government’s adult social care infection control fund provides full sick pay for sickness in social care, yet it does not financially cover the immediate after-effects of having the vaccine, which makes some people poorly for 24 hours. We do not want any low-paid social care workers to be hesitant because they might lose a day’s pay if they have the vaccine, so if that reason can be taken away, that will increase vaccine take-up.
We have seen through these developments and through our experiences in this country that the best method of countering those views is through proactive, positive health-promoting campaigns. I know that is something the Government are doing; I am following it closely. It is welcome, and we will support the Government in this. If they decide to introduce vaccine passports or certificates in any way, I hope that they continue with those health-promoting campaigns as a priority.
Vaccine passports, certificates or any other name they might be given are one of several possible responses to vaccine hesitancy. They may well play an important role in reopening the economy and society and keeping residents of care homes safe, for example, but they may be unnecessary and impossible to implement fairly. This is a highly complex area and there are no easy answers to this issue, so we will need to have a national conversation about this, and the Labour party will play its part. Our principle is that the Government must not abdicate their responsibility and simply leave this to the private sector to do any way and haphazardly, which will only lead to confusion and unfairness. Any decisions on vaccine passports must be based on firm evidence, such as the effect of vaccinations on transmission and international best practice from countries that have implemented vaccine certification schemes. There are currently several country-based examples for us to observe, such as Israel.
We all want lockdown to end and we all want as many people as possible to take the vaccine. Vaccine passports could provide an extra layer of protection for the vulnerable, they could be effective in protecting workers and they could give businesses in certain sectors the confidence they need to go forward. There are, however, legitimate concerns about the implications of vaccine passports for civil liberties and for discrimination. We cannot ignore either. We do not want a two-tier system in which those who are not vaccinated, especially the marginalised, are blocked from essential public services, work or housing; we do not want the passport abused and extended beyond what is legally required, or want it extended in time. These are all hugely important considerations for the Government to reflect on in making this decision, so we welcome this debate.
I end with a few questions for the Minister. I understand that the Government are reviewing whether covid status certificates could play a role in reopening parts of our economy, reducing restrictions on social contact and improving safety. Can she share with us the progress on this review, and what it has found so far? What external advice are the Government drawing on to inform the review’s recommendations? Is there research on the impact of a certificate on vaccine hesitancy? Finally, if the Government do proceed, how will they navigate the questions posed by civil liberties groups and ensure that the passport does not create a two-tier system?
This is a hugely important discussion that navigates new territory, but we need answers sooner rather than later. It is vital that the Government listen to all voices, for and against, including the voices of those who signed the petition.