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Covid-19: Status Certification

Volume 811: debated on Thursday 29 April 2021

Private Notice Question

Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to introduce COVID-19 status certification for (1) international, and (2) domestic, use.

My Lords, we recognise the significant public and parliamentary interest in this important topic. That is why we are conducting a wide-ranging review, seeking input from clinicians, parliamentarians and businesses, and from specialists in areas such as ethics, equalities and privacy. The review is ongoing and no final decisions about the use of Covid status certification have been made. The Government will outline the findings of the review ahead of step 4 of the reopening road map.

For months, the Prime Minister and other Ministers said publicly that the Government do not support domestic Covid passports using test results and vaccine status. On 12 December, in a letter in the BMJ, the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, said that widespread asymptomatic testing could undermine the value of testing as there is a risk of giving misleading results. The MHRA, senior advisers at the Department of Health and other experts agreed. On Wednesday, and again yesterday, Ministers revealed to the press that the lateral flow tests that the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, referred to are to be used as part of the Covid certificates. Why are the Government proposing to use unreliable, voluntary surveillance tests as the mainstay of their passport scheme when Ministers and experts have said that this is wrong?

My Lords, I said in my Answer that work on the review continues and therefore there should not be an assumption. Before the Private Notice Question was agreed—which of course I have no objection to—my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster laid a Written Ministerial Statement, and I laid a Written Ministerial Statement, on the current position. It is before your Lordships and shows the current position, and I cannot add further to what is in that Statement.

My Lords, given the enormous constitutional and ethical concerns about domestic Covid status certification in particular, can the Minister guarantee that there will be maximum transparency during the course of this review and commercial lobbying for such certificates, and that the Government will do their utmost to avoid any such scheme developing informally and non-legislatively, with the according risks for discrimination, privacy and so on going forward?

My Lords, as I said, and as is set out in the Written Ministerial Statement at greater length, ethical and equalities considerations are obviously among those being considered in the review. I can therefore confirm that those matters are being considered.

My Lords, the Government very clearly set out their road map for getting us out of the Covid situation. Although it was a very slow map, it has been well understood and appreciated by the public overall. They should do something similar for certification, because that would bring a lot of confidence to people. It should not be a mandatory scheme, but if people do not want to partake, they might find that they do not get some of the advantages of the many who do.

My Lords, my noble friend expresses a point of view. The Government are committed to exploring whether and how certification might be used to reopen our economy, as my noble friend was implying, and reduce restrictions on social contact and improve safety. But I repeat that no final decisions have been made.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with me that proportionality has to be the key to dealing with this issue? In saying so, I declare that I am chairwoman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Will he consider seriously the importance of regular parliamentary oversight of the scheme and clear, accessible exemption certificates for people who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons? Finally, does he agree that Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights calls for people to have a right to work, so we must have balance in making a decision on this and not rule out people’s right to work in gainful employment for fear of discrimination if we build in the necessary safeguards?

The noble Baroness raises important and germane points. I have said to the House twice now that ethical, equalities, privacy and other issues of those kinds are being and will continue to be considered. I refer to my Written Ministerial Statement, which sets this out at greater length.

My Lords, Zühlke Engineering was awarded a £3.9 million contract to build the now-discredited and abandoned Isle of Wight centralised test and trace app. If no final decisions have been made, why and at what cost has it been awarded work without a competitive tendering process to build Covid certifications into the NHS app with centralised systems?

I will ask my colleagues involved to look at the points the noble Lord makes. I repeat that work is continuing, as set out in the Written Ministerial Statement before the House. The review is continuing.

My Lords, in relation to some of the issues raised, the Minister may well already be aware of the expert working group of the Ada Lovelace Institute on some of these practical and ethical considerations. While personally I see the need for schemes of this kind—for international travel, obviously, but also in relation to some activities and sectors—will Her Majesty’s Government, in assessing the various pieces of work now being done, have a particular concern to make sure that no scheme becomes compulsory vaccination by default and to mitigate dis- proportionate effects on groups within the population such as those within which vaccine take-up has been low?

My Lords, I agree with the right reverend Prelate that any scheme would certainly have to take into account those who cannot have the vaccine. Obviously, the different strands—international and domestic—raise separate issues. On international travel, we also have to take fully into account what other countries may require of our citizens.

In the typical fashion of this Government, the Transport Secretary claimed that the prospects for foreign holidays in May looked good. First, can the Minister say whether that will be the case in two days’ time? It seems that was probably a bit previous. Can he tell us whether the Government are having discussions with IATA about the creation of an internationally recognised travel passport? Can he also assure the House that we will not see a repeat of the chaotic experience of the test and trace app at the beginning and that the Government have learned the lessons of the benefits of working internationally and co-operatively, rather than going it alone?

My Lords, I think nobody pretends that everything that has happened in the last year has been done perfectly in every case. The Government maintain that we have made enormous progress. I think people are gladdened and heartened to see the progress being made, in both the statistics and delivery. So far as international travel is concerned, I will not add to speculation. The Government will set out their position on international travel in advance of 17 May, as set out in the road map.

My Lords, I point out to the Minister that many people in this country are just fed up with lockdown, and anything that can ease it and make things simpler will be welcome. On the international front, I ask him to ensure that any international certificate we come forward with is compliant with and under- standable in the countries that people wish to travel to. We really cannot go into a situation in which we have multiple different certificates for international travel.

I obviously agree with my noble friend that for international travel there have to be international discussions, and indeed there are. So far as his point on lockdown is concerned, lockdown is extremely hard. It is something that has been and is being done for the sake of the general good and has contributed to the situation we are now in. Of course, the Government never underestimate the mental health and other issues that arise and have arisen.

My Lords, the CBI, of which I am president, has submitted evidence to the Government asking for a principles-based approach, meaning that these certificates should be voluntary, time-limited, science-led and either/or, based on tests or someone’s vaccine status. That is for domestic. There should be alignment between domestic and international so that people can adapt and restore trade, business and tourism links. Does the Minister agree that we need urgent clarification about these intentions to instil confidence, allow preparations and give people, businesses and wider society time to adapt, alongside support for businesses?

My Lords, the Government have set out the intention and the timescale on which we intend to proceed. We have committed to setting out the conclusions of the review ahead of step 4, as set out in the Written Ministerial Statement that has been laid. Of course, businesses are among the interested groups with which the Government have engaged and will continue to engage.

My Lords, in a Written Answer to my noble friend Lord Scriven’s Question HL15192, the noble Lord, Lord True, said:

“We will present … findings from the COVID-status Certification Review to Parliament today.”

Given the serious restrictions on people’s liberty and livelihoods, why is this being slipped out in the days before a recess? Why is it not subject to full scrutiny in Parliament?

My Lords, I have been open with Parliament and we have laid a Written Ministerial Statement. Given that Parliament is going into recess, it seemed appropriate to set out progress and the current state of affairs with the review. Any noble Lord who chooses to read it will see that that is fairly set out, but a final decision has not yet been made and, as we have repeatedly said, will be announced in due course.

My Lords, can the Minister tell me whether a vaccine passport is supposed to be a substitute for quarantine? What tests or conditions will continue to be applied on leaving the UK for, and entering the UK from, countries on the green list or any other list?

My Lords, again, the specific, final decisions that address those points have not yet been made and will be announced on the timescale I have indicated to the House.

My Lords, I raise a point I have raised many times before; I have had good answers from the noble Lord, Lord Bethell. A vulnerable area is the care home sector. It is absurd that care home workers are able to refuse to be vaccinated when they are attending to the most intimate needs of vulnerable, frail and often very old people.

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point about care homes, and I am sure my noble friend Lord Bethell will consider that carefully. The safety and security of the most vulnerable is absolutely vital.

My Lords, arts organisations that are charities or in receipt of public funds have a duty to uphold and champion equality, inclusion and diversity. Unless government makes explicit how the Equality Act will be central to any Covid-19 certification scheme, these organisations will be put in an untenable position, unable to comply with their own charitable purposes or the conditions of public funding. How will government address this?

Again, my Lords, as set out in the Statement and in my response, equality issues are considered and they are being considered in the scope of the review, as are the specific interests of the performing and arts sector. The noble Baroness will know that my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and other members of the Government have met those in those sectors. We will of course reflect on the consideration that the noble Baroness puts forward.