Health passes: how the UK government is failing the public

Technology Policy Digital Government Covid-19 Health

Health passes: how the UK government is failing the public

Posted on: 24th September 2021
Kirsty Innes
Director, Digital Government Unit

The UK government has rowed back on its plan to make health passes mandatory for nightclub entry at the end of this month. Instead, it is keeping health passes in reserve as an option.

As we’ve argued, a Covid Pass is a valuable tool in avoiding lockdown. The government is gambling on getting through the winter without needing to use either lockdowns or a health pass; but that is a risky bet. The possibility remains that as immunity from first-round vaccinations fades, cases start to tick up; and with efforts to vaccinate the whole world woefully inadequate, a new variant could emerge at any time.

If further measures are needed, it would be far better to target restrictions towards those who are at risk of passing on Covid-19 than to reimpose blanket restrictions for whole communities. Lockdowns carry heavy social and economic costs, and the disadvantaged in society suffer worst of all.

Countries such as Israel and Bahrain are updating their health passes to support the rollout of booster vaccines: in Israel the pass now expires six months after the second jab. Another possibility is to require testing as a condition of entry to more settings, for those who haven’t yet been offered a booster jab, or in addition to vaccination for settings involving vulnerable people where a “belt-and-braces” approach is justified.

A health pass can help to implement all of this, opening up a far greater set of options for fine-tuning restrictions and eliminating the need for general lockdowns.

In addition to controlling the spread of the virus, health passes also act as a powerful nudge to incentivise vaccination. This effect has been very marked in France: according to the prime minister’s office, 12 million people have been vaccinated since the introduction of the pass sanitaire in July.

To the government’s credit, it has provided a functioning health pass (for England at least). The government announced this week that the NHS App is currently the most downloaded free app in England, with over 12 million new users since the Covid Pass function was added in May. The NHS App is not perfect – it could be improved with better interoperability with other countries’ apps, fewer steps to access the Pass and the ability to confidentially match users’ statuses against a set of requirements without sharing personal information.

But it works, and it deserves to be better supported and promoted. While pursuing Plan A (no health passes), the government is encouraging venues to make use of the passes on a voluntary basis. To make this a reality, it should provide training and information on how to use them; and the verifier app should be easy to use and readily available to organisations.

The government’s squeamishness over health passes is the result of a political debate that has been disappointingly underinformed. In a recent Westminster debate, opposition broadly fell into two camps: minor operational questions that are reasonable but entirely resolvable; or ideological attachment to an abstract concept of civil liberties. This entirely ignores the reality that in our society we ask individuals to prove facts about themselves on a regular basis in support of a public good, whether that be providing proof of age to purchase restricted products like alcohol or showing a driving licence to hire a car.

Politicians are disproportionately echoing the views of a vocal minority who are vehemently opposed, ignoring the interests of the public at large – who broadly support health passes. In France, despite the initial uproar, 77 per cent of people now support a health pass on long-distance transport. And in the UK, polling has consistently shown that a majority are in favour of using them, no surprise given that the British are known for being pragmatic, and  early adopters of technology.

Denying ourselves a potentially life-saving tool because it seems too hard to confront the real trade-offs at stake is lazy politics. It’s also short-sighted: the question of how to exploit novel technologies within a socially acceptable framework is arising more and more frequently throughout public services. Rather than try to duck the issue, politicians need to lead an open debate to define what uses are legitimate and help the public decide how much data they are willing to share with whom – and in return for what public benefits.

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