Everyone is anxious about vaccine passports, especially British pubs

Re-open Sesame!
Re-open Sesame!
Image: Toby Melville / Reuters
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As countries slowly reopen after the pandemic, governments are edging closer to the implementation of some form of vaccine passport: certificates for travelers in the EU, credentials to attend sports games or take cruises in the US, or passports for the 47,200-odd pubs in the UK.

But the politics of vaccine passports is making for some strange bedfellows. Liberal and conservative governments both seem to be considering passports favorably. Meanwhile, united in varying degrees of skepticism are privacy campaigners from the left, libertarians comparing passports to badges that identified Jews during the Holocaust, the World Health Organization fearing that passports would widen social and economic inequalities—and the UK’s pub industry.

The pubs offer a particularly good way to understand the anxieties associated with vaccine passports. Prime minister Boris Johnson has already acknowledged “there is going to be a role for certification,” and his government is expected to announce its plans for vaccination credentials within the next two weeks. The opposition to this has been particularly strident from the British pub sector, which is in the midst of a slow return to normal operations. The British Institute of Innkeeping , a trade body, called the government’s floated ideas for vaccine passports “unworkable” and “baseless.” Tim Martin, the chairman of a chain of pubs called Wetherspoon, wrote in The Telegraph that a vaccine passport scheme would be “the last straw” for struggling bars.

Why are pubs worried about vaccine passports?

At first glance, these worries seem counter-intuitive. Vaccine passports are being touted as a pro-business initiative—as a way for businesses like pubs to function in near-stable ways as economies reopen, and to keep their customers as safe as possible.

But pub-owners fret that the responsibility to check passports and turn the uninoculated away is too steep. “It would inevitably put pub staff in the frontline of a bitter civil liberties war, with some customers unwilling to be vaccinated or unable to have a jab for medical reasons,” Martin wrote. Another pub proprietor called it “a minefield”; Kate Nichols, the chief executive of another trade body called UK Hospitality, thought it would invite conflict between customers and staff.

These concerns reflect just how fraught and thorny the vaccine passport terrain is. A number of questions and gray areas can be contested by customers on a daily basis. Would a jab of the Russian Sputnik vaccine or the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine be accepted? Would customers midway through their two-shot regimen gain entry? Which kinds of medical exceptions would qualify? What penalties might pubs incur if they are insufficiently thorough in their screening?

Pubs will also be hard-pressed to deploy enough personnel to cover these bases. Last year, British pubs experienced a year-on-year decline in jobs of 22%, according to data from Fourth, a market research firm. In December, typically the most profitable month of the year, pubs saw sales drop by 90%, amounting to £650 million ($891 million) in lost revenue. Paying for large staffs to check vaccine passports and control entry will be difficult for straitened, cash-strapped businesses.

In enforcing vaccine passport entry, pubs will also be turning away some of their best, most frequent customers. In the UK as elsewhere, vaccinations are being rolled out by age bracket; at the moment, shots are available for anyone aged 50 or over. People in their 20s and 30s are likely to be fully vaccinated only by mid-summer or perhaps even later, which means they will be unable to go to pubs and bars if vaccine passports kick in before then. Like all other businesses, pubs are hoping for a 2021 that can—coronavirus permitting—offset some of last year’s heavy losses. Fobbing off an unvaccinated segment of their loyal clientele may make sense for public health, but it won’t make up for a dismal 2020.