The Government is currently undertaking a Review looking into the potential introduction of a Covid-status certification system to help “handle COVID-19 from summer onwards”. According to the Government, the purpose of the certificate system would be to “play a role in reopening our economy, reducing restrictions on social contact and improving safety”. It is clear that the idea of certificates has been under consideration within Government for at least six months, however the conflicting and sometimes contradictory statements made by Ministers on the possibility of introducing certificates has risked damaging trust in Government and in the measures put in place to tackle the pandemic.
Given the significance and seriousness of introducing such a Covid-status certification system, the Committee was surprised at the lack of consideration by the Government of a number of issues and concerns with their suggested approach, in particular the scientific case for that system. It is imperative that if the Government seeks to bring forward any proposals for a Covid-status certification system, the criteria against which the efficacy of that system has been assessed, together with a cost-benefit analysis of the system, and full financial costings, are published in advance of those proposals. We would also expect detailed modelling of the potential impacts of the introduction or non-introduction of such a system in the context of the different scenarios for unlocking to be published alongside any such announcement. The Committee was struck by the fact that the best assessment the Minister could make in favour of certificates was to say that it was a “finely balanced judgement”.
If a Covid-status certification system is to be introduced, there must be a clear scientific case for its introduction. But while the Government accepted this, we found that the Government failed to make a sufficiently strong scientific case for introducing Covid-status certification in the UK. Further, while the Government could not set out to us the exact locations, events and venues which would be included in a Covid-status certification system, there appears to be no scientific rationale for the places they indicated were under consideration and most likely to be included in that system (nightclubs, large events like football matches, and for international air travel) and those that appear to have already been excluded from inclusion in that system (buses, the Underground or pubs and restaurants). We are concerned that it appears that the Government is making decisions on a largely arbitrary basis as to what locations would be included or exempted, regardless of the scientific evidence.
We considered the impact that Covid regulations have had on the hospitality, arts, and sports industries to date. While it is clear that social distancing has been a particular problem for these sectors, we found no convincing scientific case that a certificate system would materially impact any future policy decision regarding social distancing. Instead we found that a certificate system would likely place new burdens and costs on industries which are already some of the hardest hit sectors of the UK economy and society, and which continue to suffer as a result of the ongoing measures put in place to combat the pandemic.
The Committee also noted that Covid-status certification system would, by its very nature, be discriminatory, and would likely disproportionately discriminate against some people on the basis of race, religion and socio-economic background, as well as on the basis of age due to the sequencing of the vaccine rollout. We found no justification for introducing a Covid-status certification system that would be sufficient to counter what is likely to be a significant infringement of individual rights. There are also legitimate concerns over the serious data protection risks that would be involved in setting up a Covid-status certification system to the extent that the Committee cannot see how establishing the infrastructure necessary for such a system could be an effective use of resources.
Overall, we found that the Government has not established a clear scientific case, nor a good overriding public interest case for the introduction of a Covid-status certification system. There remain a large number of uncertainties about the rationale for an operation of such a system, as well as serious ethical concerns in regards to discrimination and infringement of individual rights and significant data protection concerns. When we consider that the Government’s own assessment that the case for introduction is “finely balanced”, it is our clear recommendation that the Government abandon the idea of using a Covid-status certification system domestically.
While this inquiry and the Government’s own review were being conducted, the Government decided to pre-empt the findings of both and launched a Covid-status certificate for international travel, without notifying or consulting Parliament. This could be construed as contempt for Parliament and this Committee, and this policy should have been set out in advance of any decision on the use of a certification system being taken. We found the Government’s approach on this matter to be all the more unfortunate as it appears to us that demonstrating Covid-status may become a necessary feature of international travel over the coming months and possibly years in order to avoid excessive quarantine and testing requirements. As such, any proposals would likely have been looked on favourably by and strengthened through the scrutiny of Parliament.
If, contrary to our recommendation, the Government review concludes that it should move forward with proposals for any form of Covid-status certification system within the UK, it is imperative that this is only done through primary legislation. This is necessary to allow the full implications and ramifications of proposals to be properly considered by the Government and to allow Parliament the appropriate amount of time to consider, scrutinise, debate and where necessary amend the Government’s proposals.