Covid passports being used for everyday social activities once the pandemic has eased would be against the “British instinct”, Sir Keir Starmer has told The Telegraph.
In his most critical comments on the idea to date, the Labour leader said in an interview that the Government must not leave it to pub landlords to decide whether to make such checks.
Sir Keir stressed that using Covid status certificates in the UK was a complex issue, adding that he would scrutinise government proposals before deciding whether to oppose them.
But he said: “My instinct is that, as the vaccine is rolled out, as the number of hospital admissions and deaths go down, there will be a British sense that we don’t actually want to go down this road.”
The remarks increase the possibility that the Government could struggle to find the votes to get any Covid passport proposals through the House of Commons, given that the Liberal Democrats and scores of Tory rebels oppose the plans.
Last week, Boris Johnson said he would be open to Covid certificates being used in pubs, which government sources clarified could mean checks for a Covid jab, a negative test or antibodies for the virus.
No final decisions have been made, but the Government is considering allowing such checks to be used at everything from football matches and concerts to business conferences.
The first indication of firm proposals is expected next Monday when Mr Johnson provides an update on a review into Covid certificates being led by Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
Both Mr Johnson and Mr Gove had previously expressed opposition to such ideas, but have recently signalled that they could be in favour of such a scheme.
New UK statistics have shown a 40 per cent drop in weekly Covid deaths, down from 552 to 332 in the last seven days. The weekly number of Covid hospitalisations dropped around a quarter, to 2,321.
During his interview, Sir Keir also attempted to reposition Labour on crime and policing, stressing that it has not been “strong” enough on the issue in recent years. He called for tougher sentences for people who assault key pandemic workers such as shop staff and a lower bar for when police officers should investigate persistent antisocial behaviour.
He also said there was “no case” for Britain rejoining the European Union and revealed that he had not talked to his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, for five months.
But some of his most eye-catching comments came on Covid passports – an issue that has made headlines in the last week after the Prime Minister’s openness to pubs using them. “I think this is really difficult and I’m not going to pretend there’s a clear black and white, yes-no easy answer on this. It is extremely difficult,” he said.
Sir Keir added that Covid passports for international travel were inevitable and the focus of the Government should be on maximising the vaccine rollout, but said: “My instinct is that… [if] we get the virus properly under control, the death rates are near zero, hospital admissions very, very low, that the British instinct in those circumstances will be against vaccine passports.”
He stressed that he wanted to find a cross-party consensus on the issue and would only decide Labour’s stance once he had studied detailed proposals from the Government.
But he made it clear that he was against Mr Johnson’s idea of letting pubs decide themselves, saying: “I think this idea that we sort of outsource this to individual landlords is just wrong in principle.”
His comments are likely be cheered by lockdown-sceptic Conservative MPs who have vowed to force the Government to abandon plans for Covid passports for pubs.
Mr Gove held private talks with opponents of the idea across the political spectrum earlier this week in an attempt to head off early vocal criticism.
Government sources have repeatedly stressed that his review is taking in looking at the moral and ethical implications of using Covid passports within Britain.
It is understood one idea being looked at is for the NHS app, which is available on smartphones, to be used to allow people to show their verified Covid status.
It remains to be seen under what circumstances the Government would allow Covid status checks to be carried out and what legislative route it would take to bring that about.
‘I know what it means for a community not to feel safe’
A room high in the stands above the pitch at Leeds United’s Elland Road ground is not the most obvious location from which to launch an attack on the Government’s record on crime. But it was to that location that The Telegraph was invited to hear Sir Keir reveal a new front in his drive to reshape the Labour Party and make it electable again.
A year almost to the day since he took over as leader, Sir Keir was visiting the club to hear about the local crime prevention programmes it funds. Criminal justice is a topic close to his heart, having risen through the ranks as a barrister to become Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) before crossing into Parliament in 2015.
But there is politics here too, with Sir Keir sensing Labour has, for too long, been out of step with where the country is on issues of crime and policing.
Over 40 minutes, the leader outlined his stance as well as firing a warning shot on Covid powers, responding to his faltering poll numbers and drawing a line under Brexit.
‘We haven’t been strong enough on crime’
“I think that we have not been clear enough and strong enough on things like policing and crime over recent years,” Sir Keir said in a critique of the party’s stance under his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn.
He added that the “gap” on the issue between Labour and the communities it is meant to represent had become too big and must be narrowed, noting his prosecutorial past to back up the point.
“I know what it means for a community here or across the country not to feel safe,” he said. “And by that I mean simple testimony – if you don’t feel you can go out after dark down your own street or road, there is something fundamentally wrong. And too many people are in that position.”
Sir Keir wants a new law to give victims of persistent antisocial behaviour the right to demand that a police officer investigate, arguing that the current bar for action is too low. He also wants key workers such as shop assistants and transport staff to be included in a legal change that would give attackers up to two years in prison, given the spike in abuse seen during the pandemic.
And he has called for a £150 million fund for police forces to hire more community support officers and backroom staff to ease the paperwork load for frontline officers, freeing them up to get back on the streets.
Heir to Blair?
The focus on antisocial behaviour has the ring of another Labour leader who once vowed to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Is this not a straight copy from the Tony Blair playbook?
“Tony Blair was rebuilding the Labour Party into the ’97 election almost a quarter of a century ago,” Sir Keir said, not quite denying the similarities outright but stressing his focus on looking forward.
The Labour leader was more eager to draw comparisons with his opposite number, Boris Johnson, as he rebuffed the idea that the Conservatives were the party of law and order in eye-catching terms.
“Whilst Boris Johnson was writing columns for newspapers, I was actually prosecuting terrorists, sex offenders and serious criminals, and therefore dealing with these issues is in my DNA,” Sir Keir said. Specifically, he pointed to how, as DPP, he oversaw prosecutions in the Operation Overt case, when terrorists plotted to blow up seven planes over the Atlantic.
His team pointed out Home Office statistics showing a sharp rise in violent crime recorded in the last six years but a drop in the number of charges or summons. “That cannot be badged as a party strong on crime and on criminal justice and a party strong on law and order,” he said.
A Home Office source claimed the increase was due to “improvements in the reporting of crime”, noting a recent crime survey showing that violent incidents fell over the same period. Tories have accused the Labour leader of being weak on crime for not voting for recent new sentencing legislation, which increased sentences for a range of serious crimes.
One area not in dispute is Sir Keir’s role in voting through the Government’s lockdown law changes, which have seen vast swathes of everyday activities outlawed in the Covid crisis.
He has often pushed for quicker lockdowns, but on other times a liberal, human rights lawyer could be expected to champion civil liberties. Is he uncomfortable at all with the new laws that have emerged?
“If that was a long term proposition I’d be very, very worried about it and I would be fighting it tooth and nail,” he said of the Covid laws in a hint of a more critical stance to come. “Nobody wants these restrictions, nobody enjoys living under these restrictions, and they shouldn’t be in place for a moment longer than is absolutely necessary.”
He made a similar point on Covid vaccine passports, warning that their use on the domestic front, such as in pubs, once the pandemic eased would be against the “British instinct”.
‘The Remain-Leave debate is over’
In his short parliamentary career – it is easy to forget that he only became the MP for Holborn and St Pancras six years ago – Sir Keir is perhaps best known for his battles against Brexit.
As Mr Corbyn’s shadow Brexit secretary, he led the push inside the shadow cabinet for a more open position to a second referendum and was once a passionate Remainer. Has he really given up hopes of Britain’s EU membership? And if so, is he best placed to win back the Brexit-leaning northern “Red Wall” seats that switched en masse to the Tories last election?
“We’ve left. We are no longer a member of the EU. We’ve got a deal, we’ve got to make that deal work,” he said. “There’s no case for rejoining the EU and I’ve been very clear about that. The Remain-Leave debate is over.”
So does he accept it was better that Britain was not in the European Medicines Agency – which he supported staying in back in January 2017 – given the UK’s solo Covid vaccine rollout success?
“Well look, in 2017 it was an entirely different context, obviously,” he said, tip-toeing around answering the question head on.
No Jeremy Corbyn conversations for five months
The narrative of Sir Keir’s first year can be read two ways – either getting the party competitive again in trying circumstances or beginning to flatline after a “no longer Corbyn in charge” bounce.
When he took over last April, Labour was hovering around 20 percentage points behind the Conservatives in general election voting polls, according to YouGov statistics. The gap was closed by January, but the Tories are now getting close to 10 points ahead – bringing a wave of sniping at Sir Keir’s leadership and the party’s direction.
“I mean, it’s tough,” he said, declining to give his first year a rating out of 10. “We’d had the worst election results since 1935 when I took over as leader of the Labour Party.” He noted that he had yet to give a single speech before an in-person audience as leader due to Covid restrictions, and believes the Tories have had a “vaccine bounce” in the polls.
“As we come out of year one into year two, I want to take the mask off and open the throttle,” Sir Keir declared.
But who will be joining him for the ride? Will Anneliese Dodds, his shadow chancellor – the subject of much reshuffle sacking speculation – still be in post by the end of the year? “Look, Annelise is doing a really good job. And she, like the rest of the shadow team, are out there and we all want to make the argument on behalf of the Labour Party,” he said. Which is not quite a straight ‘yes’.
What is clearer is who will not be on the Starmer bandwagon. Asked when was the last time he talked to Mr Corbyn, Sir Keir said it was the night before the report on anti-Semitism in Labour came out. That report, which led to Mr Corbyn’s suspension from the Labour Party, was published last October. Put another way, the pair have not talked for five months.