Introducing coronavirus status certificates (vaccine passports) could create a “two-tier society” which discriminates against certain groups, the equalities watchdog has warned.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) said vaccine passports could be a “proportionate” way of easing restrictions, following the “significant curtailment” of freedoms due to lockdown measures.
But in a submission to the Cabinet Office following a call for evidence, it raised concerns about “unlawful discrimination” against people from disadvantaged or ethnic minority backgrounds by restricting access to jobs and services.
The warning came after the Department of Health and Social Care launched a consultation on making vaccination a condition of deployment for staff at older adult care homes in England.
COVID status certificates can provide a way of lifting restrictions and safely opening the economy. It must strike the right balance between individual liberty and the rights of others.
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— EHRC (@EHRC) April 15, 2021
The EHRC said:
In principle, Covid status certification could be a proportionate means of safely opening up society.
But there are concerns about potential for discrimination or for infringement of civil liberties in the use of certification status to travel, go to work, enjoy social activities and access essential services, and the creation of a two-tier society whereby only certain groups are able to fully enjoy their rights.
These equality and human rights considerations must be considered in detail by Government, with clear steps taken to address any anticipated negative impacts.
A government review into coronavirus status certification for settings such as theatres and nightclubs is ongoing, while they might also be used in pubs and restaurants to reduce social distancing restrictions.
The documents would record – either on an NHS app or a paper certificate – whether someone has had a vaccine, a recent negative coronavirus test, or natural immunity having recovered from the virus.
But the commission said that as take-up of the jab is lower among people from certain ethnic minority backgrounds, migrants, and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds, these groups risk being excluded from services. It added:
Some of these groups have also been hit hardest by the pandemic.
While the Government has stated that the vaccine is available to all, if Covid status certification requirements become widespread the Government risks further excluding these groups from access to essential services and employment.
The commission added that blanket mandatory vaccination policies were likely to be “unlawful” and called for any policies to reflect the latest guidance on who can and cannot receive the jab.
They include people with severe allergies who are being advised not to have the vaccine, while pregnant women cannot be routinely offered it, according to the commission. It said any policy would need to reflect the progress of the vaccination rollout, to ensure it does not discriminate against younger people who are yet to be offered it.
The government has said care home staff in England could be required to get a coronavirus jab as a condition of deployment to protect elderly residents.
The five-week consultation will seek views on the proposal, such as potential impacts it could have on staffing and safety, how it could be implemented, and who could be exempt.
Keir Starmer didn’t take a firm position on the proposals. The Labour leader said during a visit to Gower, South Wales:
I think everybody wants care home staff to be vaccinated. There’s a unanimous position on that. The question is whether that should be mandatory.
Obviously we’ll look at what the Government puts out in any consultation.
But the most important thing is to roll out the vaccination programme fully, and make sure just as many people are vaccinated as possible.
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