In the normal course of events, any Bill which is introduced to Parliament, whether at Holyrood or Westminster, has to be accompanied by extensive supporting documentation, including a policy memorandum, setting out why it is required. In addition, there are provisions for extensive consultation with interested parties.
With the Covid pandemic, the normal processes of approving legislation have had to be curtailed, given that we are dealing with a health emergency where a rapid response is required. Accordingly, we have seen the introduction of lockdown restrictions without normal levels of parliamentary scrutiny or public consultation, but for most of us there has been acceptance that due to the seriousness of the challenge facing us, we are willing to temporarily suspend our normal safeguards in order to protect public health.
Whilst this approach is understandable, there must be a concern that it gives rise to a “something must be done” response from governments, with a knee jerk adoption of measures for which there is no evidence base, and which may be of limited value in helping our fight against Covid, but nevertheless achieve the objective of making government look like it knows what it is doing, and is taking action on behalf of its citizens.
A good case in point is the introduction of vaccine passports, presently applying in Scotland to those attending night-time hospitality venues, and large indoor and outdoor events. The Scottish Conservatives have always questioned whether there was an evidence base to support their introduction, and in that we were supported by many experts in the field of public health and behavioural science, who simply did not believe a case had been made.
On Friday, the Scottish Government published a 70-page “evidence paper” on the case for vaccination passports. Its authors appear to have gone for quantity over quality when it comes to the contents. It is a document strewn with errors, suggesting it had not even been properly proof-read before it was published. I noticed on page 5 this sentence: “The advantages of including evidence of a negative test as an alternative to proof of vaccination has advantages”. It is not the only example of gobbledygook in a supposedly authoritative government document.
More seriously, a detailed reading of the paper reveals it simply does not support the case for an extension of the existing vaccine passport scheme. At the time of its original introduction, two arguments were put forward as to why it was necessary: it would help prevent the spread of Covid within busy venues, and it would drive up vaccination rates amongst groups, such as the young, where they were too low. But the report suggests that neither of these objectives have been met.
On the question of the spread of infection, the paper is hardly conclusive, stating only that “infected vaccinated people were slightly less likely to pass the virus on than infected unvaccinated people”. On the second point around vaccine take up, it concludes that there has been only “a relatively slight impact on uptake of vaccination since the scheme was introduced”.
Indeed, we know that vaccine take-up in England, where the scheme does not apply, has been virtually identical to that in Scotland. The advantages of vaccine passports are, therefore, marginal at best.
In normal times, we would expect to see a compelling case being made for the introduction of measures having such a severe impact on human rights and civil liberties, but the Scottish Government are conceding themselves that the benefits of this policy are only very slight.
The paper does accept the significant economic impact of the introduction of the vaccine passport scheme, and concerns about its extension. Already the Scottish Hospitality Group have reported that some of their members have seen a drop off in trade of up to 40% since vaccine passports were introduced, and moreover additional costs required in policing it. There have been reported incidents of increased aggression towards security staff and stewards, leading some to walk off the job as a result.
Against this backdrop, the Scottish Government really had no alternative but to announce yesterday that they would not be proceeding at this point with the threatened extension of the vaccine passport scheme. With no evidence in favour, and overwhelming evidence of the damage that would be done, it would have been an act of economic vandalism to continue.
In the meantime, hospitality businesses, cinema and theatre operators, have been left with weeks of needless uncertainty and worry since this idea was first floated by the Deputy First Minister John Swinney.
And – astonishingly – the threat that it may still be implemented in future weeks remains on the table.
Instead, the Scottish Government announced that, in another change of heart, in future negative lateral flow tests will be allowed as an alternative to vaccine certification in affected venues. This move will help address some of the human rights issues raised by vaccine passports, although will continue to present issues with checking and verification for premises.
Despite the paper-thin evidence presented for vaccine certification, there will still be those who argue that it is necessary just because government has to be seen to doing something. From my perspective, it is very clear that the Scottish Government’s approach is undermined by its own evidence paper.
If we are serious about tackling Covid, the focus must be on the roll out of the booster programme as quickly as possible, and continued encouragement to unvaccinated groups such as the young and those in BAME communities to get the jab. That is the way we ensure protection for society - not compulsory vaccine passports.
-Murdo Fraser is the Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife