Saturday, 3 April 2021

Are COVID-19 passports the answer for pubs?

As we approach the reopening of pubs on 12 April for outside service, a late complication has been thrown into the mix with the suggestion that pubs and bars may choose to operate a COVID-19 passport policy so that customers could show that they'd had either a vaccination or a negative test. As the possibility of COVID passports has been discussed for months, I don't see why the government is raising the matter only now - so soon before reopening.

Pubs need more notice to help them plan staffing levels and how much drink to order, especially after a year of lockdowns. The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) has calculated that up to 87 million pints of beer - equivalent to £331m in sales - will have been thrown away in the UK as a result of COVID lockdowns.If pubs operate a passport policy, whether voluntary or mandatory, they would have to pay for a bouncer on the door to check passports before admitting people. Many pubs, smaller ones in particular, would struggle to pay for the extra staff member, especially after a year of lengthy closures interspersed with restricted trading due to COVID regulations.

The BBPA has expressed concern that passports will lead to confrontations between disappointed customers and staff. While this is distinctly possible, my view is that such incidents will be more likely if passports are voluntary because licensees will not be able to argue that they are simply enforcing the law.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said: "It is crucial that visiting the pub and other parts of hospitality should not be subject to mandatory vaccination certification. It is simply unworkable, would cause conflict between staff and customers.”

Both organisations have pointed to the millions spent by the sector on ensuring a safe environment for customers and staff, and to the fact that, when pubs could open, no surges in infections have been linked to them.

CAMRA is opposed to vaccine passports because pubs have suffered badly over the last twelve months and could do without unnecessary restrictions. Furthermore, passports could prevent younger drinkers going to pubs while they wait for the vaccine rollout to reach their age group.

► This is word-for-word the article that I wrote for the CAMRA column in two local papers, the Southport Visiter and the Ormskirk Advertiser. The following is my own opinion which did not appear in the papers.

In relation to the idea of CV19 passports, I am frequently hearing claims, including from one member of my own CAMRA branch, that insisting on them before entry to pubs would be a form of discrimination. This use of the term 'discrimination' usually refers to prejudice in thought or action against people for irrational reasons such as skin colour, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, and so on. A suggestion of discrimination is potentially a serious accusation which needs to be examined.

I am a committed equality and diversity person and in my last job, there was a time when I was simultaneously an equal opportunities trainer for my employer and an equality and diversity spokesperson for my trade union. I cannot see how any licensed premises that did refuse admission because the customer didn't have a passport would be guilty of any breach of discrimination laws, no more than if admission was refused on, say, dress code grounds. If introduced now it would, for example, certainly prevent younger drinkers from being able to enter pubs, but not because of irrational prejudice, but as a health & safety measure to try to combat a pandemic that has so far killed 2,840,000 people worldwide. Measures to combat disease are not irrational, so to insist upon them cannot be described as discrimination, even they do disadvantage certain sectors of the population.

That is my view on the principle, but there are a number of practicalities that would have to be addressed before a passport scheme could be implemented:

• The potential for confrontation when people are refused admission must not be underestimated. 
• Confrontations would be more likely if the scheme were voluntary because licensees could not argue that a passport was required by law.
• Some pubs would struggle to meet the cost of an extra member of staff on the door to check passports before letting people in.
• Timing: when would be the best time to implement a passport scheme to ensure that as few people as possible were disadvantaged?
• How do we deal with those who cannot have the vaccine for genuine medical reasons? (In my view, this doesn't include a dislike of needles)
• Any new CV19 variants against which existing vaccines were inadequate would instantly make the passport scheme pointless. 
• We would need adequate measures to prevent forged passports. 
• Far from encouraging confidence in pub-going, the scheme may well deter some drinkers from returning to the pub. 

I've not heard of any surges in infections that have been linked to pubs and bars. Indeed, every one I visited during the gaps in lockdowns was very conscientious in administering and enforcing the official guidance, so we have to question whether the cost, effort and practical difficulties involved in such a scheme would be worthwhile. Although I don't have a problem with the principle of CV19 passports, I consider that the difficulties I've referred to and the potential consequences render the idea a non-starter.


  1. The aviation industry is understandably very keen for the Government to introduce Covid passports to enable them to restart their businesses more quickly, but providing photo ID and going through security checks is accepted by everyone as part of flying in a way that, as you say, it isn't for going to the pub, and I can't see how it could ever become a normal routine in what is supposed to be a relaxed social environment.

  2. I certainly have a problem with the principle - the idea of requiring a government-issued pass to access everyday activities is fundamentally totalitarian. I remember the days when the Left got rather worked up about Pass Laws ;-)

    1. Very mischievous, Curmudgeon!
      I am a libertarian on the Left but I feel there is a distinct difference between having to prove who you are and having to show that you are not carrying a highly infectious, deadly disease that has so far killed 127,000 people in the UK - including a good friend of mine.

    2. I tend to look at these things as to whether they're proportionate and effective rather than by applying some kind of universal principle, so identity cards in WWII when there were German spies knocking about and photo ID to fly I have no problem with, but ID cards for football fans and in general as a counter terrorism measure, as proposed by Thatcher and Blair in the eighties and 2000s respectively, I opposed, as I would one to go in a pub.

  3. Yet another venture by this government of wanting to be seen to be doing something effective without thinking through the consequences.

  4. On whether it is discriminatory. Like most forms of current discrimination it is indirect in so far that it's effects will be uneven across various identity groups.

    Until everyone has been offered the vaccine it is unfair, but even then vaccine take up is less in particular ethnic groups and for people in lower socio economic groups. So it will effectively discriminate.

    However lots of things discriminate. The prices in craft bars discriminate and create a narrower clientele. The rules of private clubs discriminate to create a narrow membership.

    So the question is whether you consider that fair.

    1. I agree a vaccine passport would introduce unfairness - I used the term 'disadvantaged' in the post - but I wouldn't apply the term 'discrimination' in the sense of prejudice should such passports be implemented.

      I still think that arguments about civil liberties and discrimination (in the prejudice sense of the word) do not work very well. On the other hand, arguments against passports on the grounds effectiveness, practicality, affordability, etc, are much more persuasive. Also popularity: if they became very unpopular with the general public, politicians may be very wary of introducing them for electoral reasons.


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