Monday may have been named “Freedom Day”, but you better have your smartphone at the ready.

The Government is encouraging pubs, restaurants and nightclubs to check vaccine and testing status as a condition of entry using so-called vaccine passports.

The move is a U-turn by Boris Johnson, who in 2004 said he would “physically eat” his ID card if he was ever asked to produce one.

It also represents a small victory for dozens of companies and pressure groups that have lobbied the Government to introduce such a system – a gateway, some say, to far greater scrutiny of our movements.

“Like so many other things, Covid has driven the development of digital IDs forward by three to five years,” says Andrew Bud, the chief executive of iProov, a company that provides a facial verification log-in system for the NHS app. He notes paper IDs are something “the British are allergic to”. 

But with a digital ID, Bud believes the focus will be on the advantages.

National citizen ID programme

In England, the vaccination passport is called the NHS Covid Pass and can be accessed through the NHS app. People who have had two doses of the Pfizer, Oxford or Moderna vaccine, or one dose of the Janssen vaccine, a minimum of two weeks ago are eligible. So too are those who have had a negative coronavirus PCR or lateral test result within the past 48 hours, or if they have had the virus in the past six months.

Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office Minister, has said deploying the passports could help “economic and social life … return more quickly”. Ministers also claim they would consider mandating them in future “if sufficient measures are not taken to limit infection”.

The NHS app, however, does not go far enough for iProov. The company, along with fellow tech start-up Mvine, was awarded £75,000 by Innovate UK to investigate Covid vaccine certificates with deeper biometric integration. It also contributed to a review on how vaccine passports could be made more resistant to fraud.

The iProov boss, Bud, says the Government should include facial verification checks on the door at venues, meaning people will also have their faces scanned on entry.

Some companies have gone even further. Entrust, a US IT firm that was awarded £250,000 to develop the backbone software of the NHS app, said governments could “redeploy this effort into a national citizen ID programme”.

Invasion of privacy?

Statements like those from Entrust have done little to assuage fears from privacy activists that the Covid pass will soon suffer from mission creep.

Heather Burns, of the Open Rights Group, warns a UK where people must verify themselves as safe every day is “really quite terrifying. There will be an exhaustion of constantly having to prove and validate yourself”.

Digital ID firms are using the pandemic as an opportunity to successfully lobby the Government on the need for biometric checks, not just to tackle Covid but to address issues such as online child safety and age blocks on pornography.

In September last year, Matt Warman, digital minister, launched a consultation into digital identity, to “remove regulatory barriers which prevent the use of secure digital identities and establish safeguards for citizens”. It received over 148 responses.

One digital ID firm, Yoti, has spent approximately £30,000 funding the all-parliamentary group on digital identity, according to official records.

Vaccine passport in pubs

Julie Dawson, head of public policy at Yoti, says: “Over the last four to five years, there is an understanding that a physical document is not always the best way to do a decent check. There are quite a few misconceptions over the need for a physical ID.” Yoti’s app and online service lets users verify their identity and age, or as a form of facial verification login. It says its service is encrypted and it cannot view personal details it may store about a user.

Last April, Onfido, another UK start-up, wrote to ministers calling for digital IDs to tackle Covid, and in internal documents said they ought to be “recognisable to law enforcement and other agencies to prove a person is immune” and “the results belong to them, and not to someone else”.

‘Not a form of national ID card’

Consultants, meanwhile, have claimed that using digital IDs could boost the economy. A McKinsey report estimated that digital documents could boost GDP by 3pc to 13pc.

The Government has jumped on board. Digital ID companies have been touted as great British exports and taken on overseas ministerial trips, such as by London’s Lord Mayor to Canada and the US. Yoti and iProov were showcased by the Department of International Trade ahead of the G7.

There are also plenty of laws in the works that could boost the market for IDs. Yoti hopes its technology could be used to conduct repeated facial recognition of online users to verify their age.

The Government has said its Covid Pass “is not a form of national ID card and it never will be”.

Still, a world where you must show your Covid pass to go about daily events has spooked activists, who fear what other forms of verification we will need to show in future.

“We are at a really dangerous point with Covid passes,” Burns says, “we risk trading off our safeguards for a giant marketing exercise.”