After almost a year of shutdowns and heavy-handed trading restrictions – some more unpopular than others – operators felt the proposals were another kick in the teeth. For many, the promise of a summer trade, free of coronavirus restrictions such as social distancing and mandated table service, had been a glimmer of hope.
Now, venues may have to operate a ‘Covid check’ on entry in order to trade without social distancing measures, according to reports in The Guardian newspaper.
Trade bodies and operators said this may give rise to a “two-tier Britain,” if it meant pubs were only allowed to trade without restrictions if they introduced the policy.
In practice, the certification system could not rely on vaccination status alone. Ministers have suggested there may be several ways a customer could prove they were not likely to be infected, including proof of a negative test result or that they had recently recovered from the virus and had antibody protection.
Scant details have been revealed so far but it is thought the Government is considering modifying the existing NHS coronavirus app and requiring customers to enter details of tests and vaccinations.
For operator Sean Wilkinson, the proposals would raise several challenges for his collection of sites in Bilsborrow, Lancashire.
He told The Morning Advertiser (MA) he was worried about the ethical implications of demanding customers’ medical information and attempting to verify those trying to fake proof. “We are already spinning lots of plates,” he explained.
The policy may also be an added expense if it required extra team members to welcome customers and record their details, a sore issue after table service drove up operational costs in the past year.
Lack of trust
Wilkinson also questioned whether supermarkets and garden centres as well as other non-essential retail would be asked to do the same. If the approach was across all businesses, the operator said he would “happily submit.”
However, many operators would echo Wilkinson’s view that the policy was another regulation for an over-regulated sector. “It is as if we are an easy touch, not to be trusted, and looked on as the lowest of the low, where it comes to running our business,” he added.
“We will, as we always do, conform. We dot those i’s and cross those t’s. We want everything to be perfect for everyone.”
Night-Time Industries Association boss Michael Kill said night-time economy and hospitality sector businesses had been “the subject of cross sector discrimination.”
“The additional barriers around mandatory vaccination certificates to gain access to businesses within the sector is unworkable,” Kill said, “and would cause further anxiety for operators, creating more barriers to businesses, and potential conflict between staff and customers.”
While retail businesses were to be granted extended hours and have not been required to record customer contact details, pubs and bars had been subject to tougher restrictions, Kill pointed out.
If the policy kicks in this summer, the issue could be discriminatory to younger individuals and the clubs relying on them for their custom, he added.
Ministers would consider the complex ethical issues surrounding the idea, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told journalists last week, recognising some people cannot get jabbed for medical reasons.
"You might only be able to implement a thorough-going vaccination passport scheme even if you wanted such a thing in the context of when absolutely everybody had been offered a vaccine,” he explained.
The Government said it was confident it could meet its target of vaccinating all remaining adults by the end of July.
Ministers have confirmed this policy would not be introduced when beer gardens reopen from 12 April, although an update into the review into vaccine certification policies is expected next week (Monday 5 April). It was reported by The Sun that the measure is being considered for implementation closer to Christmas, rather than this summer.
Bars and restaurants in Israel have been operating a green pass system, where vaccinated customers are able to enjoy venues’ more freely than their counterparts.
Israel has seen more than half of its population inoculated with both doses of the Pfzier/BioNTech vaccine as of Thursday 25 March, according to its health ministry.
Tel Aviv operator Lion Krakover told The MA earlier this month that the policy had been “very simple” and involved scanning a PDF card with a QR code.
Staff without jabs
Customers able to prove their vaccinated status were given a bracelet or stamp on entry and able to access more enclosed areas of the bar, while others had to stick to outdoor spaces and social distancing rules.
However, the policy has not been thoroughly welcomed by operators. “It is a very serious problem, because in the end it is mandatory for customers to be vaccinated and staff not,” Krakover explained.
Pub operators in the UK have echoed similar concerns about their young workforce, who will be last in line to get jabbed.
Head of commercial employment at Forbes Solicitors, Emma Swan said if pubs were required to check customers’ vaccination status, there would be a “reasonable argument” for the same to be required of workers.
Staff in these venues will be closely interacting with customers,” Swan explained, “and it’d be very difficult to plausibly argue a real point of difference between a non-vaccinated employee and not admitting a customer who doesn’t have a vaccine passport.”
Eight out of 10 licensees said they did not support the idea of a vaccine passport policy, in a survey by The MA.
However, several operators said on social media they were resigned to more regulations and would be forced to accept the measure if it meant a route out of the restrictions that had throttled profits.
“The alternative seems to be half capacity and seating restrictions, check in apps and social distancing for the rest of time,” one operator said on Facebook. Another reader said operators may warm to the idea if it meant the return of large groups being able to gather in pubs or singing and dancing.
Faced with an option of a venue with a slashed capacity or a bustling pub with a passport policy, some said there was no dilemma in their minds.
What's more, a recent YouGov survey found that more than half (56%) of Brits supported vaccine passports for pub entry.
However, for the majority of the trade, the policy will be a bitter pill to swallow, especially given evidence of low transmission rates in pubs.
Across Wilkinson’s sites, at the Guy's Thatched Hamlet, some 200,00 contact details were recorded over a five month trading period, with no alerts from contact tracers about at-risk individuals.
The sector has been "the safest Covid-free environment around,” the operator said. “Now with the vaccine roll out steaming ahead and surpassing all targets with hard work and dedication of key worker teams around the United Kingdom, our social environment only gets safer.”