'Covid vaccine passports could worsen health inequalities,' says mayor

 Dr Sandra Husbands and Hackney Mayor Phil Glanville

Dr Sandra Husbands, director of public health for the City and Hackney, and Hackney Mayor Phil Glanville. - Credit: Hackney Council

Hackney's mayor and director of public health have raised concerns over the possibility of Covid vaccine passports for "everyday things", believing they could "open up enormous inequalities" and give people a "false sense of reassurance".

As European Union leaders discuss the possibility of vaccine passports for international travel, the notion of immunity passports for domestic use in Britain has led to mixed official responses and public opposition. 

At a live Q&A hosted by the Gazette on February 25, mayor of Hackney Phillip Glanville said the idea made him "nervous": "Given a borough like Hackney that has in-built disparities in health, the digital divide and poverty, I can't help feeling the most digitally divided, the most deprived communities and the most distanced from [vaccine] centres are the ones that will not be able to access that passport – and any talk about how that passport might work is reliant on the app again.

"We know that communities found the app challenging."

On February 14, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the introduction of vaccine passports to access supermarkets "hasn't been ruled out", but he was quickly contradicted by the Prime Minister who said they may be needed for travel abroad but not to go to the pub, supermarket or for work. 

Private venues, however, do have the power to prevent certain people entering and the government has now tasked Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove to look into the possibility of a scheme which could see the NHS test and trace app updated to show proof of immunity. 

Hackney's mayor said he "completely understands the sentiment", particularly behind vaccine documents for international travel, adding: "When I have been on holiday in Africa, you have a yellow fever passport [and] that is something people are commonly aware of.

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"But if you are talking about [people] doing everyday things in their community, that would make me extremely nervous, unless we could make sure that there was in-built protection for people around equalities.

"We talked a lot about people with learning disabilities and challenges, and if you forgot your passport and the stress of all of those things – it makes me incredibly nervous for the equalities reasons."

Director of public health for City and Hackney, Dr Sandra Husbands, agreed with the mayor at the Q&A but added that the passports might also give people a "false sense of reassurance". 

Dr Husbands said the Covid vaccine was different to the yellow fever jab "at the moment", as evidence is still being gathered about the transmission of coronavirus. 

She explained: "The difference between [current Covid vaccines] and the yellow fever vaccine is that there is much more certainty that if you have a yellow fever vaccine, you are not going to be bringing yellow fever into the country.

"Whereas it's not entirely clear at the moment that if you have had the Covid vaccine you can't possibly get infected and then therefore possibly infect somebody else."

Dr Husbands explained later: "We shouldn’t really be thinking of being vaccinated as a license to do things. It's for your protection and to some degree, it will be for protection of the whole community and of course, the more people who get vaccinated the better the protection is, even if it doesn’t prevent transmission."

She shares concerns with the mayor that Covid passports for domestic use could "open up enormous inequalities", adding that there will be people "for whom the vaccine just doesn't work" and those who do not get vaccinated for "various good reasons, not because they are irresponsible or don't have community spirit".

"I think to marginalise those people because they were not able to get a vaccine by not giving them the passport would be unreasonable," Dr Husbands said. 

Meanwhile, the issue could be debated in parliament after a petition against the introduction of vaccine passports gained 200,000 signatures.

To learn more about the Covid vaccine, visit www.news.hackney.gov.uk/dr-sandra-husbands-your-questions-answered-on-the-coronavirus-vaccine-rollout/ 

To get more involved with community public health via Hackney Council's community champions scheme, visit https://hcvs.org.uk/event/public-health-community-champions-training/