Those were the words of Michael Gove at the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee on May 27 this year.
For a man known for his careful wording, he could not really have been clearer. Fast forward to September 8, when I secured an Urgent Question to Nadhim Zahawi, then Vaccines Minister, in Parliament on the Government’s intent to enforce mandatory Covid ID.
In 20 years as an MP I have rarely seen a Minister be set upon so roundly by their own backbenchers. If he were a fox, it would have been illegal. Alas, the protections of the Hunting Act 2004 do not extend to Ministers – so Mr Zahawi had to stand and take it as one by one.
After that piece of Parliamentary blood-sport, a message must have reached No. 10 that a vote would be unwinnable. Sure enough, the following Sunday, Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid toured the media telling the world that the idea was dead. Job done, you might have thought.
Days later, however, the Government’s Autumn and Winter Plan was published and tucked away within ‘Plan B’ was vaccine status certification. Vaccine passports, the zombie idea, were back.
The only thing that seems to have changed is that now the Government wants to avoid any Parliamentary say on the matter.
The other day, I was in a meeting with the new minister, Maggie Throup. Her commitment was rather different to Michael Gove’s. A vote would be held, but if ‘circumstances required’ then they might impose the new rules first and then vote on it after.
It is a funny sort of emergency that is so urgent that Parliament cannot vote on it, but in which clubs and venues can also stay open once they have their passports in order.
So, Parliament might be allowed to rubber stamp the Government’s decision after the event – instead of deciding for ourselves.
Realising that they could never win a vote before introducing this madcap policy, it is clear that the new strategy is to barrel forward, by hook or by crook, and then hope for forgiveness.
You might reasonably ask: Why does this matter?
Firstly, the idea of vaccine passports opens the door to a massive change in how you and I as citizens interact with our government. Never before in peacetime have we allowed our government to regulate and discriminate on where we go, with whom, and for what purpose. If the case for such a change is truly so strong, then the people’s representatives should be allowed to debate them fully.
You can be concerned about vaccine passports for liberal reasons. You can be concerned about them for privacy reasons. You can be concerned about them simply because it is Boris Johnson and his motley crew who are the ones seeking to impose them.
Or you can be concerned simply because there is precious little evidence that they will have the claimed impact. Vaccine passports are not the silver bullet that some in government pretend – otherwise they would have got round to releasing the evidence in support of them.
Since day one of this pandemic, the Prime Minister and his colleagues have been searching for a quick fix. This is just the latest in a long line. The only certainty that we can have about Covid, however, is that there is no quick fix.
We must vaccinate as many as we can and, for those who do contract the virus, test, trace and isolate. Covid passports help with none of these things.
Research suggests that rather than encouraging people to get the jab, they may in fact harden people’s views – exactly the people we need to win over to get vaccinated. Worse still, they can give a false sense of security. The key benefit of the vaccine is not that it makes us totally immune to catching Covid, but that it prevents serious illness.
Vaccination remains the best way out of the pandemic, and sunshine remains the best disinfectant for our public policy.
When a major change to our individual freedoms is at stake we deserve free and open debate – not this government skulking behind our backs. Parliament must have a vote on vaccine passports – before they are introduced.
Alistair Carmichael MP is the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs Spokesperson.
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