Plans to introduce Covid-19 vaccine passports for access to nightclubs and major indoor venues in England have been scrapped, according to UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid.

While the vaccine passports plan will still be kept “in reserve” over autumn and winter, they are no longer set to be rolled out at the end of September.

On 12 September Javid told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “I think most people probably instinctively don’t like the idea… I’ve never liked the idea of saying to people ‘you must show your papers’ for something, to do what is just an everyday activity.”

Last week UK Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi told the Andrew Marr Show that vaccine passports were due to be rolled out in select settings by the end of September, when all people aged 18 or over would have been offered both doses of a Covid-19 vaccine. He described the scheme as the “best way” to keep venues open and avoid a winter lockdown.

Javid has now said that vaccine passports were not needed in England because of other factors in the country’s “wall of defence”, such as high vaccine uptake, testing, surveillance and new treatments. He has also said that while it would be “irresponsible to take everything off the table” he is “not anticipating” any more lockdowns.

Scotland will still be pushing ahead with vaccine passport plans and will be introducing them for entry to nightclubs and large events from October. The plans were formally approved by Holyrood after the SNP and Greens voted in favour, while the proposals were opposed by the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats.

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In Wales, ministers will decide next week whether to introduce a vaccine passport scheme. There are no current plans for a similar scheme in Northern Ireland.

Javid has also said he wants to remove the UK’s polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test requirement when returning from some foreign countries “as soon as [he] possibly can”, saying that such measures should not be in place “for a second longer than is absolutely necessary”.

The UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) recently published advice for the UK government on ways to improve the private PCR travel test market. The CMA said it risked a “race to the bottom” where providers compete on grounds other than high clinical quality, at the expense of travellers.

Several key announcements and decisions are expected from the UK government over the next few days.

On 14 September, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to outline his Covid Winter Plan for England. The plan is expected to include contingency measures that could be implemented if the NHS is at risk of becoming overwhelmed.

Speaking on a visit to Leicester today, Johnson revealed that booster jabs for adults will be going ahead in the UK this winter, and have “already been approved”.

Voluntary vaccine passports

Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner has said the government’s approach to Covid passports has been “shambolic from the start”, lacking clarity about the real purpose of the passports or how they would work in practice.

Proponents of the scheme maintain that they can minimise the spread of Covid-19 by only allowing fully vaccinated people who are less likely to contract and spread the disease into certain high-risk public spaces. They could also motivate people who are vaccine-hesitant to get vaccinated to avoid losing access to these spaces.

However, while the Covid-19 vaccines deployed in the UK against the disease have demonstrated impressive efficacy against hospitalisation and death, it is still possible for someone who has received two vaccine doses to contract and spread Covid-19. Working out the significance of the risks associated with this is a thorny business – if a disease no longer leads to significant numbers of hospitalisations or deaths, how relevant is its spread? Nevertheless, it’s a complication that puts the passport policy on shakier ground.

The incentive argument can also appear shaky, with some studies finding that they actually lead to feelings of coercion in vaccine-hesitant people and inadvertently make them less likely to be vaccinated.

Despite the lack of legal obligation, some large UK venues such as football stadiums, live music venues and music festivals have already been asking people to prove their Covid-19 status to gain entry.

The Premier League said at the start of the 2021/22 season that fans would face random spot-checks of their Covid-19 status, with attendees asked to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test.

Manchester United has implemented Covid spot-checks on match days at Old Trafford, and has said it expects full proof of vaccination to become mandatory in the Premier League from 1 October. Brighton, Chelsea and Tottenham football clubs have also introduced mandatory checks for their fans at stadiums.

Vaccine passports: ethical objections

Leisure industry executives have largely criticised the concept of vaccine passports, saying they would “cripple the industry” and create conflict between customers and staff.

The Night Time Industries Association and the Music Venue Trust have both welcomed the move to scrap the controversial passports.

Ethical objections to vaccine passports have been raised by MPs across the political spectrum on libertarian grounds.

Conservative MPs from the Covid Recovery Group have opposed the move and Liberal Democrat Leader Ed Davey has described vaccine passports as “divisive, unworkable and expensive”.

The UK Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) warned that Covid status certificates could amount to unlawful discrimination and lead to a two-tier society of vaccinated and unvaccinated people. It also noted vaccine passports could amount to discrimination against certain protected categories of people – including migrants, people from minority ethnic backgrounds and people from poorer socioeconomic groups – due to lower vaccine uptake in these groups.

Is antibody testing a viable alternative?

Private testing provider the London Medical Laboratory has argued that, instead of a vaccine passport scheme, quantitative Covid-19 antibody test results should be used.

The number of antibodies in a person’s system following vaccination decreases over time, with the latest data from the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONC) indicating that 92% of all over-80s tested positive for antibodies, down from 94.4% in its July report. It’s only a small decrease, but may well continue to drop over time.

London Medical Laboratory chief scientific officer Dr Quinton Fivelman said: “Our most recent tests are finding a growing number of people have lower values (50 to 500AU/ml) of antibodies and the clinical significance of this is still being researched.

“The ‘cut-off value’ is still not known and how long protection will last is still being fully understood, although research has shown a clear correlation between antibody levels and protection against reinfection. If someone takes a test and their score is low, their antibody levels may have significantly declined over time and they may be more susceptible to the virus as time passes.

“That’s why an antibody-based passport, rather than a simple ‘double jab’ record, would be the best solution to help the UK return to normality, or at least a ‘new normal’ balance of risk versus rewards.”

However, the antibody passport model has its own flaws.

For starters, T cells and B cells are thought to have a significant role to play in Covid-19 immunity and may well be maintained even after measurable levels of antibodies in the blood have decreased. This means that antibody levels, much like vaccination status, still can’t necessarily provide a definitive picture of an individual’s Covid risk.

Furthermore, if a person has been fully vaccinated but their antibody levels have decreased, it is harder to justify their exclusion from public venues than it is for people who are willingly unvaccinated. While some pundits have expressed little sympathy for unvaccinated people who fear being unable to do certain things as a result, since they can remedy this by getting vaccinated, it’s harder to take a similar stance for people who have been vaccinated but whose immunity has waned.

Fivelman told Medical Device Network: “Venues and event goers need to make informed decisions about the risks of attending nightclubs etc for a person who has not produced antibodies. Passports based on jabs won’t give that information. People with few or no antibodies should talk to their doctors.”