Covid Scotland: SNP government should ditch vaccine passports before they damage the economy even more – Murdo Fraser MSP

On Friday this week, assuming no last-minute changes of heart, vaccine passports will be introduced in Scotland for all those attending nightclubs, indoor events with more than 500 people, outdoor, unseated events with more than 4,000, and all live events in excess of 10,000.

Is the purpose of Covid vaccine passports for nightclubs to prevent the spread of infection or to encourage more young people to get the jag? (Picture: Michael Gillen)

Today, the Scottish Conservatives will bring a vote in the Scottish Parliament to try and prevent the introduction of this vaccine passport scheme, on the basis that the case has not yet been made for its introduction, and given the very real practical difficulties that have been identified.

It is a policy which is unravelling already, even before it comes into force. Yesterday the First Minister announced that there would now be a “grace period” during which there would be no sanctions applied to businesses which did not enforce the rules, until October 18. Whilst a welcome development, it does not go far enough to address concerns about a policy which lacks a strong evidence base for its introduction.

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We are still waiting on a detailed explanation from the SNP government as to the purpose behind this scheme. Is it primarily about preventing infection, or is it about encouraging more people to take up vaccination, particularly amongst the younger age groups? We simply don’t know.

We do know that double vaccination provides only limited protection against spreading Covid-19, particularly the Delta variant which is currently rife. Being double vaccinated does not stop people catching Covid, although in most cases it should mean that the symptoms are much less than would otherwise be the case. But that being understood, it is questionable what the value of vaccination is in protecting others in large crowds, although it is undoubtedly of benefit to individuals.

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Nor is there compelling evidence that vaccine passports would reduce vaccine hesitancy.

Giving evidence to Holyrood’s Covid-19 Recovery Committee last week, Professor Sir John Montgomery, of the Ada Lovelace Institute, stated: “My worry about vaccine passporting is that it doesn’t really address the reasons why people are hesitant... What you worry about with vaccine passports is that instead of seeking to address the reasons for distrust and concern, you aim to up the stakes for people and say if you want to enter these things, you have to be vaccinated, and that may exacerbate distrust and come back to haunt us.”

There may well be a counter-argument to that of Professor Montgomery, but it simply has not been made by the Scottish government at this point, and yet these passports are due to come in within a matter of days.

Parallel concerns were raised at the same committee meeting by Judith Robertson of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, who was clear that the case has not yet been made for the introduction of vaccine passports. We know that there are human rights issues here, that we are asking people, for perhaps the first time in Scottish society, to provide evidence of their medical status as the price of accessing certain events. And yet, as Judith Robertson said, “there isn’t a clarity around what evidence is being used to base the decisions on”.

The second major area of concern relates to the practical implementation of the policy as it affects business. Last week, the Night Time Industries Association in Scotland announced that it had instructed its legal team to commence proceedings for a judicial review of the Scottish government decision saying that the scheme was “neither proportionate, nor represents the lowest level of intervention possible to achieve the public health imperative, and it is therefore likely to be unlawful”.

The NTIA claimed that the scheme as proposed would raise serious issues with definition, market distortion, discrimination, resource allocation, and in economic impact, amongst others. There are concerns that businesses will struggle with the requirements to check customers’ ID, and the potential loss of trade could end up costing thousands of jobs in an industry which has already suffered so much due to Covid restrictions over the past 18 months.

The definition of nightclub that has now been provided by the Scottish government is drawn much more widely than the industry expected, including all pubs or restaurants that usually stay open past midnight, with music, alcohol and dancing.

This brings in many hundreds of premises which would not normally classify themselves as nightclubs, The person responsible for operating such premises will be under a legal obligation to take all reasonable measures to ensure that, after midnight, only customers who are fully vaccinated or exempt are on their premises. There is no indication from the Scottish government that there will be any financial assistance available for those bearing the cost of these new measures.

Given all the concerns about the introduction of vaccine passports, it is no surprise that the UK government took a decision not to bring forward their introduction in England. It is a pity that the Scottish government has not followed suit.

There may well be a case for the introduction of vaccine passports, if it could be demonstrated that the public health benefits of such a move outweighed the many concerns that have been raised about their impact. As of today, the Scottish government has still not made that case.

Just last week we saw the SNP U-turn on the requirement for international travellers who had been double vaccinated to also have PCR tests, after concerns were raised across the travel industry. That was a welcome move, given the economic damage that was being caused by a policy which was simply driving Scottish travellers to book flights from English airports, rather than those north of the Border.

If the Scottish government can rethink one policy on Covid-19 in the light of experience, then it can do the same again. It is time to ditch the flawed vaccine passport scheme before more damage is done to our fragile economic recovery.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife

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