An education minister has repeatedly refused to rule out that students could be required to be double-vaccinated in order to attend university lectures in person and live in halls of residence.
The Times reported that Boris Johnson had suggested the move in order to help drive up the rates of young people taking up the vaccine.
Conservative MP and minister Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) was repeatedly asked about the potential policy on Monday morning.
Although she initially answered “no” when asked about the plans on Sky News, before stressing the need to prioritise education, she did not take the opportunity to rule the policy out later on.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “So obviously, I can’t comment on things that haven’t been announced. But one does need to look at every practicality to make sure that we can get students back safely and make sure that we can continue to prioritise education.”
And she told Times Radio: “We don’t want to go back to a situation where large parts of education were closed to many young people and children, and a key part of doing that is having that double-vaccinated population.
“So I think we need to continue to encourage our young people to step forward, have the vaccination, and that is the way that they can have that freedom and confidence that they’ll be able to have that full university life.”
The Times reported that the Prime Minister made the suggestion, subject to medical exemptions, during a virtual meeting from his isolation at Chequers.
And Downing Street did not deny the reports on Monday.
“You have heard what the PM has said before, specifically that the pandemic is not over,” a No 10 spokesman said.
“We are still looking at the scope for vaccination certifications.”
But Robert Halfon, Conservative MP and chairman of the education select committee, told The Times: “This is wrong-headed.
“It’s like something out of Huxley’s Brave New World where people with vaccine passports will be engineered into social hierarchies — ie those who will be given a higher education and those who do not.
“Where does this stop? Do we fire apprentices who have not had the vaccine? Do we remove older students from FE (further education) colleges? Do we close down adult education courses where adults have not had the vaccine? I hope not.
University and College Union (UCU) general secretary Jo Grady said the move would be “hugely discriminatory”.
She said: “Sadly, this looks and smells like a Prime Minister trying to pin the blame on students for not yet taking up a vaccine they haven’t been prioritised to receive.
“Instead of chasing headlines as ministers go off on holiday, it would be much more useful if the Prime Minister worked with universities and NHS providers to enable and sensitively encourage student vaccination without resorting to compulsion, and finally make a clear case for the scrapping of vaccine patents globally – which are restricting the ability to vaccinate the world, entrenching global inequalities and exposing us all to more vaccine-resistant strains.”
Asked if there was concern about take-up of the vaccines in younger age groups, the No 10 spokesman said: “I think you continue to see more and more young people coming forward to receive the vaccine, both in terms of first doses and now second doses.
“Of course, we want to see more people come forward to receive it.
“We would like to see everybody who is invited to come forward and receive the vaccination to do so. That’s the message we continue to try and give to young people.”