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Vaccine Passports Could “Reinforce Structural Discrimination” Against Disabled People, Experts Warn

Businesses fear introducing the system could "potentially result in discrimination claims" (Alamy)

4 min read

Legal experts and charities have warned that the introduction of Covid status certificates — otherwise known as vaccine passports — could undermine disabled people's rights and leave businesses open to discrimination lawsuits.

Civil liberties organisation Liberty warned that introducing such a system could “reinforce structural discrimination” faced by disabled people and “risks further marginalising people who are already discriminated against and cut off from vital services”. 

Meanwhile, disability charity Scope said it feared certain protected groups could be excluded by businesses “without the correct guidance in place”, which some fear could leave them open to discrimination lawsuits. 

The government announced in February that it would conduct a review into the feasibility of a vaccine passport system, with a final decision to be announced ahead of the last stage of lockdown lifting in June.

However, ministers have struggled to maintain a consistent position, with many shutting down the idea repeatedly prior to the announcement of the review. 

Boris Johnson told MPs last month that the idea of vaccine passports in hospitality settings “should not be totally alien to us”, but is now understood to be wavering on whether to introduce them in the summer, according to the Mail.

“Strategies based on division will create further obstacles to equality and reinforce structural discrimination in the UK, which will impact people’s health,” Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns at Liberty, told PoliticsHome.

“We will only get out of this pandemic by taking a fresh, people-centred approach with policies that protect everyone in every community.”James Taylor, from the disability charity Scope, said he was concerned that such a system “could make coming out of lockdown more challenging for some disabled people”.

“There are 14 million disabled people in the UK who will all have their own individual circumstances. For some, their health condition may prevent them from having the vaccine altogether. Disabled people and their rights must not be forgotten,” he told PoliticsHome. 

“There must be appropriate exemptions in place for disabled people where a vaccine passport would not be appropriate – with employers made aware of these exemptions – accompanied by accessible guidance to prevent discrimination and illegal practice.”

He continued: “We’ve already seen potentially discriminatory blanket bans to prevent clinically extremely vulnerable people from attending pilot large-scale events and Covid passports could give way to further discrimination and exclusion of disabled people, without the correct guidance in place.”

In its most recent review of lockdown progress, the government suggested that Covid status certificates could “play a role in reducing social distancing requirements” in settings such as hospitality. 

It ruled out imposing a ban on businesses requiring proof of Covid status from customers and employees as it would be “an unjustified intrusion on how businesses choose to make their premises safe”.

But Kate Nicholls, CEO of UKHospitality, said the opposite was true, arguing that it would impose “unnecessary burdens on businesses that cannot or will not operate a vaccine scheme”.

“It is simply unworkable, would cause conflict between staff and customers and potentially result in discrimination claims,” she said.Nicholls added: “Hospitality businesses have spent a significant amount of time, energy and money ensuring their premises are safe and ready to welcome customers back. 

“Come June, we need to throw off the shackles of Coronavirus in line with the Government’s roadmap, not impose more checks on our ability to socialise and do business.”

Tom Moyes, a partner at legal firm Law Blacks, said that businesses should proceed with caution when considering their vaccine policy, if any, as there was some legal basis for discrimination suits. 

“The Equality Act protects both employees and customers of businesses and therefore there is a “potential claim on paper”,” he told PoliticsHome.

“If venues did decide on a stance where they would not accept clients or customers into their venue without proof of vaccination, although there would not be claims for direct discrimination  — as immunity is not a protected characteristic under Section 4 of the Equality Act 2010 — there could, for example, be potential claims for indirect discrimination.”

“However, I would fully expect the policy makers to take this into account and therefore rather than relying on only one method to demonstrate protection (vaccine passport) then I suspect they will allow evidence of a negative covid test within say 24 hours of visiting the venue.”

He added that requiring vaccination of employees or customers should be considered by each business on a “case by case basis”.

“If employers choose a one size fits all approach, they do so at their peril,” he said.

A Government spokesperson said:  “We are considering a range of evidence around COVID-status certification and whether it may have a role in opening up higher risk settings safely. 

“The review is ongoing and no decisions have been taken."

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