LONDON – Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave Britons their first detailed look at what a post-pandemic society could look like on Monday, announcing free twice-weekly coronavirus tests in England and Covid Status Certificates that would enable people immune to entering crowded nightclubs and sporting events.
The plans were the next step in the UK government’s cautious reopening of the economy and its first effort to tackle the thorny questions of how to distinguish between those who are protected from the virus and those who are still vulnerable, so that the country returns to normality. .
“I will go to the pub myself and cautiously but irreversibly raise a pint of beer to my lips,” Mr Johnson said at a press conference at 10 Downing Street, listing the next round of loosened restrictions.
Trying to strike a balance between public health and personal freedoms, he said Britain would design a system to certify the Covid status of anyone seeking to enter high-risk settings. While pubs and non-essential stores may be allowed to require proof of non-Covid status, they will not be required to do so.
Britain has long resisted the idea of requiring people to carry identity papers, and for some in the country the issue has authoritarian overtones. Opposition Labor Party leader Keir Starmer recently suggested that Covid’s ‘passports’ might be against ‘British instinct’.
Mr Johnson acknowledged the sensitivities and stressed that the certification plan would not be rolled out for a few months. The government plans to test the program in pilot venues, from a comedy club and nightclub in Liverpool to the FA Cup football final at Wembley Stadium.
“You have to be very careful how you handle this,” he said, “and don’t start a discriminatory system.”
From next week, the Prime Minister said non-essential shops, hairdressers and beer gardens in England pubs will be allowed to reopen. But he was much more cautious about overseas travel, declining to say whether the government would stick to its earlier May 17 target of lifting the ban on overseas vacations.
Britain plans to classify countries according to a traffic light system, with visitors from green countries not being required to self-isolate, visitors from orange countries being required to self-isolate at home for several days, and visitors from red countries required to continue to quarantine themselves in hotels.
With more than 31 million people having received at least one vaccine shot and the country still largely on lockdown, Britain has dramatically reduced its new cases, hospital admissions and deaths from the virus. As a result, Mr Johnson’s focus shifted to running an increasingly open society.
One of its most ambitious plans is to offer free rapid test kits to the entire population so that people can get tested routinely. The kits, already used by hospitals and schools, will be available by mail or in pharmacies.
Public health experts applauded the gradual pace of government measures, which they said were appropriate for a country in which the virus was still circulating, even with declining death rates and rapid vaccine deployment. But they expressed skepticism about the testing schedule, wondering if people would be encouraged to get tested twice a week.
“Testing only works if people isolate themselves on the basis of a positive result,” said Devi Sridhar, head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh. “But if they can’t go to work and lose income, what’s the motivation for getting tested?”
Britain’s experience with testing and traceability has been one of the most catastrophic parts of its performance in the event of a pandemic. Even now, experts say, it only isolates a quarter to half of those who come in contact with people who test positive for the virus.
“There is still no appropriate effort for sustained isolation, and an obsession with testing rates with no apparent understanding of the purpose of testing,” said David King, former chief scientific adviser to the UK government who has strongly criticized its response to the pandemic.
While Professor King credited the government with finally becoming more cautious, he said: “The level of the virus in the country is so high that there is no reason to believe that we are out of it yet.
The announcement of Covid certification follows weeks of mixed signals. In February, Nadhim Zahawi, the minister responsible for deploying the vaccine, called its use for anything other than travel abroad “bad and discriminatory.” Last month Mr Johnson suggested that it might be up to individual pubs to decide whether or not to require Covid passports before serving customers.
Under current government thinking, the certification would apply to people who are vaccinated, who have recently tested negative for the virus, or who can prove natural immunity from having recovered from Covid.
The opposition comes from both civil liberties defenders on the left and libertarians on the right. Last week, more than 70 lawmakers signed a letter opposing the “discriminatory and discriminatory use” of Covid passports. They included more than 40 conservative lawmakers who are part of the Covid Recovery Group, a caucus of lawmakers who criticized the lockdown measures.
In the Daily Telegraph, Graham Brady, who chairs an influential group of Tory backbenchers, argued that Covid passports made no practical sense because many young people would likely not have been vaccinated by the time the government plans to reopen much of the economy. . Fundamental principles are also at stake, he said.
“At the start of last year, patient privacy was a sacred principle and the idea that other people could inspect our medical records was anathema,” Brady wrote. “Now the state is considering having us disclose our Covid status as a condition of going to the pub or the movies.”
Given the skepticism of Labor leader Mr Starmer, the government knows that if it goes too far it could lose a vote on the measure in parliament.
Yet, some consider the arguments about civil liberties to be more fairly balanced. Adam Wagner, a human rights lawyer and expert on Covid-related laws, said the government needed to be cautious because of privacy concerns and because “a system like this could put them in conflict with anti-discrimination laws, eg for people. who cannot be vaccinated due to a disability. “
But he added that there was nonetheless a valid civil liberties argument for the introduction of vaccine passports.
“Lockdown is a very serious imposition on everyone’s freedoms and increasingly a hammer to crack a nut,” Mr. Wagner said. “One way to reduce the possibility of foreclosure is to allow people who are not contagious, or who are less likely to be, to do more things than people normally do than those who are contagious or who are more likely to be contagious. to be contagious. “