The coronavirus pandemic has seen numerus legislative innovations and a broad disregard for parliamentary scrutiny over the course of the past 13 months.

New regulations have been frequently published hours before they come into force, subject only to a simple vote for subsequent approval without any scope for amendments or meaningful debate. All of this could fade into comparative insignificance if vaccine passports are used and required in some of the ways discussed. 

The introduction of vaccine passports for use in a domestic context, for access to everyday activities such as going to the pub, the gym or to church, would be without precedent. To introduce a wide-ranging digital system of verification linked to your identity would roll all previous debates around ID cards and the encroachment on liberty they pose into a single focus point; and they potentially would be introduced by ministerial fiat, without adequate, if any, democratic scrutiny. 

A remark by vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi MP, in an interview with The Daily Telegraph a few weeks ago, mooted that they could be used for access to churches and other places of worship. This was in response to a question, and it would seem as though his response was to rule nothing out, rather than to suggest this was under active consideration. Even so, this is a deeply concerning prospect; it could suggest that churches are required to limit who attends based on their ability and willingness to produce proof of either vaccination or a negative test result. This has significant religious liberty ramifications. The prospect of a centralised digital system recording activity poses the frightening prospect of a state-backed register of who is attending which places of worship, something that should be of acute concern. 

I do, however, think it’s vital that we don’t get carried away with unfounded possibilities about what could be done with a system that is still under consideration. I have little doubt that the Government will pursue some sort of status certification’, but the details matter a lot. For international travel, there is long-standing precedent in the form of Yellow Fever certificates required for travel to some countries. For healthcare workers, there is inconsistent application of requirements for immunisations. And importantly, for those with ethical concerns over such certificates being an indirect way of requiring people to take the vaccination, they will cover both testing and vaccination status. It’s also crucial to note that vaccine passports are unlikely to be compulsory, so churches will not be required to shut their doors or operate a two-tier system of the healthy’ and unhealthy’.

Are there any upsides for churches?

Discussion around status certificates have centred on their use to enable large-capacity events to operate and hospitality venues to run at full capacity, and therefore in a more economically viable manner. It is possible that the same approach might be offered to churches so that they can dispense with social distancing restrictions if they check the status of those attending. For churches with large congregations, they may take the view that access to in-person worship is more restricted at present than it may be in future through use of such a system and decide on that basis it is worth pursuing. 

This is an explicitly pragmatic argument and therefore needs to be handled with care. Churches are currently operating under restrictions, and some may consider the option of operating at full capacity without social distancing or being able to sing together as a worthwhile trade-off. For those who are elderly or particularly vulnerable, knowing that those who will be at church have either had a vaccination or tested negative may encourage them to return. Others will hold objections to COVID-status certificates to such an extent, or view the benefit allowed in using them to be insufficient, that they will not opt to use them if offered. My point is simply that it is a more complicated ethical issue than simply the Government imposing something that is severely detrimental to religious freedom. 

The most concerning ethical aspect of what might plausibly be introduced is that via an app, which carries your status certificate’, your movements and check-ins are recorded. This could mean that a register of church attendance, which the state authorities have access to, is created via the backdoor. Tracking who attends church is significant warning light for eroding religious freedom. 

In a context of easing restrictions, it is also hard to see why such approaches are being considered. What does this mean for promises that society will return to normal by the summer? When the Government said that all restrictions would be lifted at step 4, many didn’t notice the caveat that clarified legal’ restrictions. Social distancing and advice against singing, while strongly encouraged, and potentially necessary to be followed to take all necessary precautions, are not directly written into the coronavirus regulations; therefore, the possibility of them persisting after other restrictions have been lifted is something that shouldn’t be accepted lightly. 

Pressing the Government to protect religious freedom

With entertainment and sporting events due to return in the summer, the Evangelical Alliance will continue to press for all restrictions, both legislative and in guidance, to be lifted as soon as safely possible and to ensure that there are not enduring restrictions without good cause. If crowds are singing at concerts and cheering at sporting events there is no reason, nor any acceptable defence, for singing at church to be prohibited.

There’s a final point worth considering on this subject, especially as the current roadmap in England, and likewise in other nations of the UK, is offering a route to the removal of restrictions over the next few months: any such vaccine passport system would not come into use until the summer, at the earliest, so is unlikely to be directly linked to the lifting of restrictions at this point. What I consider more likely is that the measures will be a tool in the Government’s pocket to prevent blanket lockdowns in the future. In the event of future spikes, for instance, venues can either close or operate under a system that checks people’s test or vaccination status. This would avoid the sweeping lockdowns that we’ve seen in the past year and potentially normalise the use of such certificates to prove that one is safe to enter a venue.

Once vaccine passports are introduced, how they are used and how they are discontinued are vital questions. The persistence of emergency legislation for many months without adequate scrutiny does not suggest that powers of oversight and surveillance gained would be given up lightly. The Evangelical Alliance has already raised concerns over the threat to religious liberty that such passports could pose, and we will continue to press for an acknowledgement of the importance that churches and collective worship bring to our communities, especially in the most difficult times.

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