UK Firms Step Up Opposition To Gov't's Vaccine Passport, Lateral Flow Test Plans
Faizan Hashmi 6 months ago Fri 09th April 2021 | 11:55 PM
The UK government's plan to gradually reopen the economy through the rollout of free rapid lateral flow COVID-19 tests and a domestic vaccine passport scheme may push more businesses in the ailing hospitality and tourism sectors to the brink of ruin, business leaders and legal experts told Sputnik, amid growing calls for the government to provide greater clarity
MOSCOW (UrduPoint News / Sputnik - 09th April, 2021) The UK government's plan to gradually reopen the economy through the rollout of free rapid lateral flow COVID-19 tests and a domestic vaccine passport scheme may push more businesses in the ailing hospitality and tourism sectors to the brink of ruin, business leaders and legal experts told Sputnik, amid growing calls for the government to provide greater clarity.
England's third national lockdown legally came into force in the first week of January, as the government sought to curb the spread of a new highly infectious COVID-19 variant first identified in the county of Kent.
The tough measures have helped to rapidly curb the rate of new infections, as just 3,030 positive tests were registered by the Department of Health and Social Care on Thursday. At the start of the year, health officials were confirming in excess of 60,000 new cases daily.
As a result of the fall in infections, the UK government has looked for ways to begin steadily easing the lockdown measures. The government's "stay at home" order was lifted on March 29, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled a road map for the eventual reopening of pubs, restaurants, hairdressers and other non-essential businesses that were forced to shut their doors as a result of the lockdown measures.
Starting Monday, non-essential shops and hairdressers in England will be allowed to reopen. Pubs and restaurants will be permitted to serve customers in an outdoor setting from this date, although these businesses must wait until May 17 before reopening their indoor areas.
"I will be going to the pub myself and cautiously but irreversibly raising a pint of beer to my lips," Johnson joked during a Downing Street press conference on Monday.
The government is still reeling from the criticism it faced for last summer's Eat Out to Help Out Scheme. The initiative, which gave residents vouchers to use in hospitality businesses that were hit hard by the first national lockdown put into force in March 2020, was subsequently blamed by some for a resurgence in new COVID-19 cases in the fall.
As a result, the government is mulling new measures to help control the spread of the disease as businesses reopen. These include the launch of a domestic COVID-19 vaccine certification system, as well as the rollout of free rapid antigen tests, also known as "rapid lateral flow tests."
UK GOV'T PLACES TRUST IN POTENTIALLY INACCURATE LATERAL FLOW TESTS
Rapid lateral flow tests involve a swab of the mouth or nose, and can be carried out by the individual getting tested. They provide results within 30 minutes, without the need to send the sample to a laboratory, and have been used in the UK to help schoolchildren and teachers return to the classroom for in-person tuition since March 8.
Despite their convenience, rapid lateral flow tests are less accurate than polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that require laboratory analysis, and concerns have been raised over the number of so-called "false positive" results they provide.
Speaking on Monday, the prime minister announced that everyone in England would be offered two free lateral flow tests per week from April 9. In a press release published earlier on Friday, the government said that the tests were an "essential part of the easing of restrictions."
"Around one in three people have coronavirus without any symptoms, so getting tested regularly is one of the simplest and easiest ways we can keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. I'd encourage everyone to take up the offer and test twice a week," Health Secretary Matt Hancock said in the government's press release.
Minister for health Edward Argar told the BBC earlier this week that lateral flow tests yield a false positive result in fewer than one in every 1,000 tests, although the rollout of a testing system that could provide inaccurate results has raised concerns among businesses in the hospitality sector.
According to trade association UKHospitality, firms in the sector bearing the same name lost 200 million Pounds ($274 million) in revenue per day in 2020, and industry figures have expressed worries regarding the impact false positive tests could have on staffing levels and client footfall, at a time when many businesses are already at the verge of financial ruin.
"There are false positives. In theory the rapid flow testing for everyone sounds like a great idea, it sounds fantastic, because we can get COVID-19 at bay so to speak. However, the fact it is not conclusive and it is not 100 percent correct means we have a major problem in the fact that businesses could have to close when nobody in reality has had a positive COVID-19 test," Alison Magee-Barker, the owner of the hospitality-focused AJ Lakes Consultancy firm, told Sputnik.
The consultancy expert said that many hospitality businesses that are still in operation have created "bubbles" to coordinate workers' shifts, adding that an increase in false positive tests could create major staffing issues that could force a venue to close.
"It could have an impact PR and media-wise. If somebody has to close down, it's sort of a dirty word isn't it for them? And guests may look to avoid that venue in the future," she said.
Additionally, Magee-Barker said that the hospitality and tourism sector had done as much as any other industry to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in their venues, and businesses have been left bemused by the lack of lateral flow testing in supermarkets.
"The one thing that is frustrating for a lot of hospitality venues is that supermarkets are null and void ... is the lateral flow testing being done in those environments as well?" she said.
Jasmine Birtles, the director of popular financial information site MoneyMagpie, told Sputnik that the scaling up of lateral flow tests would only lead to an increase in the number of false positive results.
"For a start, it has been shown over and over that the more a population is tested, the more they find infections because of the false positives. In fact false positives account for at least 20 percent (more like 50 percent according to some researchers) of all results. If this is repeated across the whole of England then there will be millions of false positives," Birtles said.
PROPOSED ROLLOUT OF COVID-19 VACCINE PASSPORTS DOMESTICALLY
COVID-19 vaccine passports have been proposed as a means of facilitating international travel while the disease continues to spread across the world, but the UK government is also mulling whether to use a similar scheme to allow individuals to attend public events, such as sports matches or concerts.
Israel launched its "green passport" scheme earlier in the year, giving vaccinated individuals access to gyms, hotels, cinemas and synagogues, and ministers are considering the launch of a similar scheme in the UK this coming summer.
The potential rollout of a domestic vaccine certification system has been criticized by some members of the hospitality sector, particularly pub and restaurant owners, who have cited the low proportion of under 40s who have yet to receive even a single vaccine dose.
Speaking at Monday's press briefing, Johnson denied the rumors that vaccination certification would be required for residents to visit pubs.
"There is absolutely no question of people being asked to produce certification when they go to the shops or to the pub garden," the prime minister said.
According to Rachel Fletcher, a partner and head of crime and regulatory at UK-based law firm Slater Heelis, the introduction of a vaccine certification system may require changes to existing legislation.
"It would be very difficult to enforce vaccine passports at venues and certain events under current legislation and to enforce this with criminal sanctions would certainly need changes to existing law. We don't know as yet if criminalization is being proposed but we do know that the track and trace system has widely been considered by many to be a failure and the invasion to privacy of citizens is unprecedented and would be hard to justify again," Fletcher said to Sputnik.
Fletcher also noted that the introduction of vaccine passports could lead to discrimination against groups, such as pregnant women, who have chosen not to be inoculated, and may lead to a "further criminalization of law-abiding citizens."
The government's plans to rollout the vaccine passport scheme to cover certain hospitality venues could also put a further financial and regulatory burden on some of the UK's hardest hit businesses, the solicitor said.
This opinion was shared by AJ Lakes Consultancy owner Alison Magee-Barker, who said there was a lack of clarity on the regulations that may be brought into force.
"I do feel that when you start to ask hospitality venues to police customers and ensure that they have got these passports to be able to come into the venues, they could actually get quite crossed. You could have two people walking in, one has had the vaccine and one hasn't, what do you do? Do you say no to the whole party? It's a difficult one because you're asking staff who are there to do a job to actually police this," she said.
MoneyMagpie's Jasmine Birtles warned that the software used to host COVID-19 vaccine passport data could be easily hacked, and said that the rumored launch of the initiative showed that the government was seeking to exert greater control over UK residents.
"My main concern about the imposition of vaccine passports is the fact that this is quite clearly not about health or protecting the public or even about helping the economy. It is about control of the people. It was attempted with track and trace which was, happily, a complete (expensive) failure. Now it is being attempted here and in other countries with vaccine passports," Birtles said.
According to Department of Health and Social Care data, more than 31.9 million people have already received one vaccine dose, although the government has stated that the program's focus would, over the coming weeks, switch to giving vaccinated individuals their second shot.
Despite this, hospitality firms are continuing to call on the government to provide greater clarity in order to avoid the need for businesses to interpret the various regulations and guidelines in their own way.
With the rules set to change once again and the prospect of vaccine passports on the horizon, businesses may have to contend with another set of rules that could cause further confusion and economic challenges.
"It is a rocky road out of this lockdown," Magee-Barker remarked.