Vaccine passports will be required by law in England for the first time, Boris Johnson said on Monday, in a bid to increase Covid vaccine uptake among the young.
The Prime Minister announced that everyone who wants to go to a nightclub from the end of September will have to show proof of having received two doses of a Covid vaccine.
He also said "other venues where large crowds gather" could also be made to adopt the checks, opening the door to their potential use at concerts, theatres and sports matches.
Mr Johnson did not even rule out requiring them in pubs, stressing that was not his desired outcome but making it clear that it remained an option the Government could adopt.
Speaking at a virtual press conference, the Prime Minister, who is self-isolating at Chequers, said: "As we said last week, we do reserve the right to mandate certification at any point if it is necessary to reduce transmission.
"And I should serve notice now that by the end of September – when all over-18s will have had the chance to be double jabbed – we are planning to make full vaccination the condition of entry to nightclubs and other venues where large crowds gather. Proof of a negative test will no longer be enough."
The announcement marks a major change in position from the Prime Minister, who last week said companies would be left to decide whether to adopt such Covid status checks. It is an attempt to convince younger Britons to get vaccinated amid growing alarm in Whitehall that uptake has not been as high as hoped among those aged 18 to 30.
The announcement goes beyond the mandatory Covid passport scheme that was under consideration by the Government for months earlier this year but was rejected two weeks ago.
That system would have allowed people to show a negative Covid test or proof of natural antibodies to gain entry. Under the new proposal, only two doses of a Covid vaccine is sufficient.
The move also sets up crunch votes in Parliament, with an unusual coalition of lockdown-septic Tory MPs and liberal Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs expected to oppose it amid fears that it paves the way for ID cards.
Much will depend on whether Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, whips his MPs to oppose the move. Sir Keir told The Telegraph earlier this year that Covid passports went against the "British instinct".
Mr Johnson’s comments came on the day England finally went ahead with stage four of his reopening roadmap – described as "Freedom Day" – which saw almost all Covid restrictions lifted.
On Monday morning, headlines had been made by scenes of young Britons celebrating in nightclubs as dance floors were opened again after midnight on Sunday.
But at the press conference, Sir Patrick Vallace, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, warned that such scenes could be "super-spreading events". He and Jonathan Van Tam, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, urged the public to embrace the new freedoms with caution as Mr Johnson refused to rule out reimposing restrictions.
Sir Patrick said 60 per cent of those hospitalised with Covid were double jabbed, but later corrected himself in a statement clarifying that 60 per cent of hospitalised people have not been vaccinated.
Despite those concerns, Downing Street has picked the end of September as the potential starting point for the vaccine passport push given that everyone over 18 in the UK is due to be offered two jabs by the middle of that month, countering criticism of age discrimination.
Mr Johnson declined to clarify exactly what other venues could be affected, but said those that fell into the category of the "three Cs" – "closed, crowded and close social contact" – could be included. That opens up the possibility of theatres, cinemas, indoor and outdoor sporting events and business conferences potentially being included.
Asked explicitly whether he could rule out changing the law to force pubs to check for Covid vaccine status, Mr Johnson said he "certainly" did not want to adopt such measures but added: "We reserve the right to do what is necessary to protect the public."
Attendees would be likely to have to show the NHS app, which includes proof of vaccination, to gain entry if the law was changed, with those without phones showing paper alternatives for those without phones.
A Number 10 source said those who cannot get jabs for health reasons would be exempt.
But such a path brings complications. Ministers have previously pushed back on such plans during internal Government discussions due to fears over easy forgeries.
It could also open the Government up to claims of discrimination, given that foreigners currently cannot use the NHS app because they do not have NHS numbers, meaning they would struggle to enter UK clubs.
It remains possible that the plan to change the law to force Covid checks could be abandoned if enough young people get jabbed this summer.
On Monday night, the backlash to the announcement was growing in the affected industries and among Tory and Liberal Democrat backbenchers who have opposed domestic Covid checks.
Michael Kill, the chief executive officer of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), accused the Government of "another chaotic U-turn", saying: "So, ‘Freedom Day’ for nightclubs lasted around 17 hours, then."
Mark Harper, the chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs, hinted at a parliamentary rebellion, telling The Telegraph: "I look forward to Parliament having the opportunity to debate this matter and vote on it in September.
"I can’t see any good reason for this at all. Ministers have got to make a very strong argument for this – and they haven’t."