1828 DEBATE: Should pubs be allowed to ask drinkers for proof of vaccination?

Annabel Denham and Emma Webb

March 25, 2021

Annabel Denham, director of communications at the Institute of Economic Affairs, argues YES

That Boris Johnson didn’t rule out pub passports in an offhand comment to the Liaison Committee yesterday doesn’t warrant the subsequent “no jab no pint” hysteria. The Prime Minister has simply reaffirmed that, even in the warped Covid era, publicans running private businesses will still be granted the right to refuse entry.

This is no more coercion than businesses discriminating based on competence, pubs banning smoking in their beer gardens, or think tanks refusing to publish communists. Rather, it is the standard freedom of association that most libertarians would stridently defend.

Why, therefore, are some allergic to immunity certification? If it places publicans in an “invidious” position, then I’d like to see their response to the government dictating who they can and cannot allow onto their premises. If the concern is manpower, I would reiterate Boris’s words that this “kind of thing may be up to the landlord”. He is right: government not intervening in the day-to-day running of private businesses is a central tenet of a free market economy.

If some people want this, why stop them? Vaccines don’t provide complete safety, and some older and more vulnerable people may feel more comfortable in venues where the risk has been minimised by only allowing other people who’ve been vaccinated to enter.

Inevitably, some business owners will conclude that allowing entry to all is best for the bottom line after a year of turmoil. Others may decide to allocate times for the vaccinated and unvaccinated. Many will make exceptions for those who cannot have the vaccine. Exclusion is very unlikely to become an issue.

A final point. Why is it that those most vehemently anti-lockdown are also opposed to measures that could help it end? If face masks are required to educate children, surely this is preferable to keeping them under house arrest? If social distancing means non-essential stores may reopen, is that not a price worth paying? If temporary passports help pave the way to freedom, should they not be embraced?

Emma Webb, political commentator and associate fellow at Civitas, argues NO

Pubs should not be allowed to refuse the unvaccinated a pint.

Rightly, vaccination remains voluntary. Some people may object to taking the vaccine on ethical grounds, some may refuse because they are anxious about the side effects, while others might reject it simply because they do not wish to be coerced by the threat of discrimination. To a degree, their reasons are no one else’s business.

In a free society, the right to choose what goes into your body is fundamental. Coercion, through the threat of access to services, should worry libertarians just as much as direct government intervention does, yet many have chosen in this case to favour the rights of businesses over the rights of individuals.

Discrimination against the unvaccinated should be illegal. First, the risk to public health posed by a small minority of unvaccinated individuals is not sufficient to justify discrimination. Second, discrimination on medical grounds would effectively make the unvaccinated second-class citizens – let’s remember, being unable to attend social events with friends and family in your own country is quite different from needing a vaccine to go on holiday.

Further, it is worth remembering that socialising is not ‘non-essential’; it is central to our wellbeing and mental health – something that seems to have been forgotten over the past year.

The idea that without a vaccine you will effectively remain in lockdown should not be acceptable to anyone who values freedom.

One legitimate reason for the government to intervene is to protect the liberty of the individual. This includes their ability to live a normal life, free from discrimination. You can either have vaccine passports or a free society, you cannot have both. In any case, life without risk is no life.


Written by Annabel Denham and Emma Webb

Annabel Denham is the director of communications at the Institute of Economic Affairs and Emma Webb is a political commentator and associate fellow at Civitas.


  1. I agree with Annabel. It’s a commercial decision.
    A business like, say, Saga cruises that caters exclusively for a, ahem, mature clientele, may well find it impossible to sell its berths unless it assures prospective cruisers that their fellow passengers will have been vaccinated. At the other end of the scale, a pub in a university town that caters primarily for students would be crazy to insist on vaccination certificates or tests, as this would drive away their target customers.
    If there are enough punters who want an unrestricted pub, theatre, cinema, whatever environment, the market will provide it.

    1. This is simply a matter of civil liberties. I agree that nobody should be forced to vaccinate, except as part of their job for example in the NHS. But this also applies to pubs. If the landlord believes that he will attract more customers by making vaccines compulsory, they should be free to demand proof. If they wish not to do so, they should be free to accept all comers, understanding that some customers may not feel comfortable in such an environment. This is the joy of capitalism.

  2. I used to think that health was my number one value.
    I was wrong; it’s freedom.
    I would slam dunk rather be unhealthy and free than healthy and imprisoned.
    Part of this whole debacle is not enough businesses pushing back.
    The notion that you should be made by law to do something that makes no sense and has no effect on anything is problematic.

    I don’t want a vaccine arms race.
    Do you really think Pfizer is going to be able to keep up with dozens of variants each year?
    Do you really think people are going to want to keep getting jabbed after the 4th or 5th or 6th waves and beyond?
    All these vaccines do is make resistant strains dominant.

    1. Freedom is very important. Businesses should be free to make their own decisions as to who they sell beer to and drinkers should be free to make their own decisions as to who they buy beer from.

  3. It is a matter for the landlord. A public house is a private place, but one in which the landlord has the right (but not the obligation) to sell alcohol to the public in general. His pub, his trade, his decision.

    How vaccination would be established, were the pub to require it, is another matter. A straightforward paper certificate of vaccination, in the manner of the long-established WHO yellow vaccination booklet for travellers, is one thing : some electronic back-door i/d card is another.

    1. It is not the landlord who will decide policy. It will be the pub chain owners who will decide. They hold a the purse strings, and they dictate to the landlord what they do and don’t do.

      1. Yes, you are correct however it will go further back up the chain. It will be the Insurance Companies. The underwriters will not be prepared to take on the perceived risk and simply tell the chain or Landlord that they will withdraw cover if they do not require proof of vaccination before entry. Once one does it, all will fall into lockstep behind.

  4. The problems I foresee with vaccine passports and businesses, not just pubs, is that there are a lot of younger, and many older, people who are not going to take the vaccine because they either think they don’t need to or because they simply don’t want to, or they want to wait until the results from the vaccine trials are due to be published in January and February 2023.
    They are the ones who spend their money in the leisure industry, pubs, clubs, cafe’s, restaurants, gyms etc…and if they’re not vaccinated and there are passports then businesses will have to forego their spend.
    This is not going to help the high street recovery.

  5. Let the free market decide. Personally I’d rather spend my money in a pub that required vaccination same as I’d prefer to drink in one with decent beers, no juke box and no smoking.

    Freedom means that businesses can set their own rules and customers can choose which businesses to patronise.

    The State’s role should be limited to providing secure verification of vaccination status to individuals. What individuals and companies decide to use that information for is up to them.

  6. “the risk to public health posed by a small minority of unvaccinated individuals is not sufficient to justify discrimination”
    You *know this*, do you? If you don’t *know* it, say so. But do not make claims for which you have *no evidence*.

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