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Uber and Deliveroo discounts to lure young people in UK to get Covid jab

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<span>Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA</span>
Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA

Cheap taxi rides and discounts from the biggest takeaway companies are to be deployed by the government in a desperate effort to boost Covid vaccination rates among the young, amid growing legal and political pressure on Boris Johnson over the use of vaccine passports.

With figures inside the cabinet concerned about the plans already in place to enforce vaccine passports in some settings, the government’s focus has turned to using incentives to drive up vaccination rates over the summer to head off another Covid wave as offices, schools and universities reopen.

Car-hailing companies Uber and Bolt, as well as delivery service Deliveroo, are all involved in plans to offer consumers discounts. Latest take-up figures suggest that 60% of 18- to 25-year-olds have received at least one jab, but ministers are concerned that demand from younger age groups is levelling off.

It comes as Johnson backed away from making full vaccination a condition for allowing students to live and be taught on their university campuses, amid Tory unrest.

The Observer has learned that the government was last week delivered a stark briefing from university lawyers, outlining a series of legal obstacles to the plan that would leave them open to a slew of cases, many of which could apply to other sectors should passports be considered in other areas.

Johnson has already set out plans to make vaccine passports mandatory in some indoor venues such as nightclubs. However, companies are warning that they could face legal action should they implement “no jab, no job” policies.

Ministers have so far rejected calls to pay the young to have a vaccine, after US president Joe Biden called for $100 payments to be offered to the newly vaccinated in the United States. However, ministers are now working with popular cab-hailing and takeaway companies to introduce incentives, though the firms will not ask for or hold any health data.

Under the scheme, Uber will offer discounted rides and meals on Uber Eats for young adults who get the jab. Bolt will offer free ride credit to vaccination centres. Other incentives being discussed could include vouchers or discount codes for people attending pop-up vaccine sites . Sajid Javid, the health secretary, called on the young to “go out and take advantage of the discounts” when they become available.

Incentives are desperately being sought by ministers amid growing concern over attempts to force the young into being vaccinated. After universities were privately warned early last week that the use of vaccine certificates was an option being examined by the government, a detailed memo was delivered to the cabinet office warning that institutions risked breaching consumer law by effectively changing the terms of the contract handed to students who had already received an offer of a place in September. Lawyers also warned that legislation would need to be changed to allow universities to compel students to take a vaccine – a vote the government could struggle to win.

Confirming a student’s vaccine status, lawyers said, also opened up universities to “legally questionable” use of data and created major challenges in securing such sensitive information. They also warned there were grounds for age discrimination complaints in having different rules for students and staff, as well as the need to treat certain vulnerable groups differently. Legal questions were also raised about the treatment of international students, who may have had vaccines administered outside the UK.

Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland, said that with voluntary vaccination programmes in place, it would be “deeply unfair if students were treated in a different way to any other section of the population”. He added: “We would urge clarity on the position as soon as possible to allow us to fully prepare for the new term.”

Boris Johnson visits The Industry Centre at the University of Sunderland. The university&#x002019;s vice-chancellor has asked for clarity on the measures the institution must take.
Boris Johnson visits The Industry Centre at the University of Sunderland. The university’s vice-chancellor has asked for clarity on the measures the institution must take. Photograph: WPA Pool/Getty Images

Professor Nick Braisby, vice-chancellor of Buckinghamshire New University, said plans were already well under way for the return of face-to-face teaching should guidance allow.

“We implore the government to treat university students no differently from other citizens,” he said. “We have made offers to applicants in good faith, and these are legally binding. Were the government now to seek to make vaccination compulsory, it would be unclear what legal support it would have.

“Furthermore, given the time delay between first and second doses, for students to be fully vaccinated by the start of term, it is already too late for someone who has not yet had the first dose.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said that another year of tuition should not be allowed to descend into another term of “chaos and confusion”. “We do not want to see a repeat of a plummeting of student mental wellbeing or a skyrocketing of stress for staff, because of increased workload. The government needs to put things in place now.”

Larissa Kennedy, president of the National Union of Students, said suggestions that ministers would wait until near the start of term to decide their policy was “laughable” and warned the government had learned little from last year’s chaos. She said: “Accommodation contracts will have been signed months ago, students will be furious if they’re yet again expected to pay out for rooms they aren’t able to occupy. Students deserve better.”

The government said it “strongly encouraged” students to get vaccinated and urged universities to “promote the offer of the vaccine”, but said it “currently has no plans” to introduce vaccine passports for education.

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