Covid Scotland: How might vaccine passports be extended and why?

The Scottish Government has hinted the vaccine passport scheme may be extended over winter.

This is one measure being considered to cope with an expected increase in Covid cases amid severe pressure on the NHS over winter, Deputy First Minister John Swinney told MSPs on Tuesday.

But what will the scheme involve and why is it being considered?

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Why is the Scottish Government considering expanding vaccine passports?

People wanting to go to cinemas, museums or sports matches in France have to prove they have had a Covid-19 vaccination or a recent negative test. Photo by ALAIN JOCARD/AFP via Getty ImagesPeople wanting to go to cinemas, museums or sports matches in France have to prove they have had a Covid-19 vaccination or a recent negative test. Photo by ALAIN JOCARD/AFP via Getty Images
People wanting to go to cinemas, museums or sports matches in France have to prove they have had a Covid-19 vaccination or a recent negative test. Photo by ALAIN JOCARD/AFP via Getty Images

Tighter restrictions may be needed to combat a “very quick increase” in levels of Covid in coming weeks, Mr Swinney told MSPs on Tuesday.

The government is also considering tightening rules around the wearing of face coverings and further requirements for ventilation and home working.

Mr Swinney said more time spent indoors as the weather worsens, COP26 and Scots visiting family over the Christmas period may all contribute to a rise in cases.

“Starting from the current high level of infection in the community, and the intense pressure the NHS is already under as a result, some scenarios for what may happen next are very concerning,” he said.

“We need to avoid the most dangerous of those scenarios.”

How will an expanded vaccine passport scheme work?

The Scottish Government has yet to provide detailed information on what this expansion may look like.

Vaccine passports are already required at nightclubs and Mr Swinney said this could be extended to other indoor hospitality and leisure centres.

He said the government was considering accepting proof of a negative Covid test as well as proof of double vaccination.

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In other countries in Europe, vaccine passports are already used to gain access to certain venues including cafes, restaurants, cinemas and gyms.

In Italy and France the pass is also needed for some travel on public transport.

What do business and hospitality figures think of extended vaccine passports?

The idea is not popular with business leaders.

The Scottish Chambers of Commerce said the move would be a “massive step backwards” and would have “damaging implications” for businesses.

Chief executive Dr Liz Cameron said on Tuesday: “It’s essential we don’t now take a massive step backwards through the introduction of further economic deterrents, enhanced baseline measures and increasing use of vaccine certification.”

The Scottish Hospitality Group said the scheme would have to be adapted as other hospitality venues do not have the same qualified door staff as nightclubs.

“I don't see how they can roll this out to other areas of hospitality, when currently there's no evidence to show the situation is actually helping in its current form,” said spokesperson Stephen Montgomery.

“And at the moment we need SIA [Security Industry Authority] door staff to refuse entry. How is that going to look in your local greasy spoon cafe?

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“You’ve got SIA-badged door staff standing at your door checking Covid certifications … the policy would have to change to implement that.”

What do public health experts think?

Several public health experts have spoken out in favour of extending vaccine passports.

Chair of public health at Edinburgh University Devi Sridhar said the move would help protect the NHS over winter.

Prof Sridhar said she expects this idea to be “controversial”, but likened it to laws meaning customers at indoor venues have to go outside if they want to smoke.

“We use public policy to make it safer for the community, while also getting people to choose the option,” she said.

“If they don't want to be vaccinated, that’s fine, but they they need to sit outside.”

Genevie Fernandes, a research fellow in Global Health Governance and Respiratory Health at Edinburgh University, said the idea was “certainly reasonable”, and could first be extended to social venues with large crowds and alcohol served, such as weddings and large gatherings.

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"More than 80 per cent of the population in Scotland are fully vaccinated so it might be relatively easier to implement this policy,” she said.

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"Ultimately, full coverage is the goal for now, and vaccine passports can serve as a nudge for those who are yet to get their first or second dose. If this policy is implemented, Scotland will join the likes of New York, Israel and the EU.”

She said the government should consult with business owners, and with the public, due to the risk of vaccine passports reducing uptake if members of the public believe their freedom is being curtailed.

What do representatives in health and social care think?

Dr Andrew Buist of the British Medical Association (BMA) and Donald Macaskill of Scottish Care, which represents care homes and care at home providers, have supported the potential move.

Dr Buist, chair of the BMA’s GP Committee, told Holyrood’s Covid-19 Recovery Committee on Thursday: “I think if I am going into a cinema or theatre or something like that I think it would be useful to know that people I don’t know have been vaccinated, that would give me some comfort.

“In short I would be supportive of the proposal to extend it.”

Mr Macaskill, chief executive of Scottish Care, said given the “undeniable” relationship between transmission in the community and what happens in the care sector, he “personally would be in favour of the extension of the use of vaccination passports”.

What do opposition politicians think?

Opposition politicians have not supported the current vaccine passport programme and are not in favour of any extension to it.

Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross asked on Tuesday: “How can the Government take those plans forward when it knows the damage that the scheme is already doing to Scottish businesses and the impact that it is having on people’s jobs?”

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Labour’s Daniel Johnson raised the “challenges” to staff at cafes in checking Covid certification at the door and also asked for further evidence.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats warned Mr Swinney’s statement was the start of a “steady creep” of vaccine passports into other aspects of people’s lives.

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