FMQs: Nicola Sturgeon told vaccine passport evidence less detailed than a cocktail menu

The First Minister has been accused of driving through controversial plans to introduce vaccine passports for nightclubs and large events with no evidence the move will help to increase vaccinations or prevent the spread of Covid.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Deputy First Minister John Swinney arrive for First Minister's Questions.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Deputy First Minister John Swinney arrive for First Minister's Questions.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said a document published by the Scottish Government ahead of a vote on the controversial issue, was less detailed than a cocktail menu at many of the businesses likely to be affected.

His remark was dismissed by Nicola Sturgeon as “student union” politics who said she was offering “grown up” politics.

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At First Minister’s Questions, Mr Sarwar, said: “The scientific advisory group, which the Scottish Government's Chief Medical Officer sits on says that any proposals should consider these three key points. One, isolate those infectious from the rest of the population. Vaccine passports won't do that. Two, reduce the likelihood that they enter high risk settings or situations, vaccine passports won't do that.

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"Three, attempt to decrease the transmission risk from an infectious person in any given environment. And given the high transmissibility of the Delta variant vaccine passports won't do that. So can the First Minister tell us what evidence has led her and her ministers to change their minds, disagree with these scientists and now back vaccine passports?”

The First Minister said she had not “changed her mind” and that she had long been considering vaccination certification, and said she “continued to listen to a range of evidence” and pointed to the comments of Stephen Reicher, a government adviser, who “set out both the benefits of vaccine passports, the conditions which must prevail to make them a success, but also the limitations.

“They are not a 100 per cent solution in and of itself. All these things which Anas Sarwar has run through have to be done, but in addition, vaccine passports can provide an added layer of protection.

“If you have, for example, a nightclub, where people come together with the potential for a super spreading event, then if you make sure that in addition to all of these other protections, that everybody has been fully vaccinated, what you do is you reduce the risk of transmission, and you significantly reduce the risk of illness.

"Is there a complete solution? No, but in the face of this really challenging pandemic, there is no one single solution, we've got to take all of the ways that we can, as proportionately as possible, to keep the country as safe as possible.

“That's the responsible way in which this government is going to continue to act. And I think some of what we've heard from the opposition suggests that a bit more genuine grown up politics on this issue would go a long way.”

Mr Sarwar hit back asking if all the businesses who had raised concerns were being “disrespectful” and asked for information on just what consultation had been undertaken with industries likely to be affected.

He added: “The First Minister has published a document this morning, that contains no evidence that this will make a difference. These are serious questions which deserve serious answers.

"She references nightclubs. This document suggests we still don’t know what nightclubs means. And they’ll be expected to introduce these measures in three weeks time.”

He continued: “There are businesses that are impacted by this that have longer cocktail menus than this document.

"So I think we need some real real life experience from the First Minister on this one. Rather than create a new system, we should be fixing the systems we already have. That means after 18 months, finally giving test and protect the support it needs.

"We know the vaccine works, it reduces hospitalisations, and deaths. But even if you've had the vaccine, you can still get the virus, and you can still spread the virus. So making sure someone is negative going into a venue is more important.

"But under these proposals, someone who doesn't have a vaccine passport, and doesn't have the virus will not be allowed to enter venues. But someone who does have a passport and does have the virus will be able to walk straight in. How does that make sense?

"There are no details published in the paper, no evidence to back these proposals, no meaningful engagement with the sectors involved. No public consultation.

"First Minister, it's not the case that you're rushing through this proposal in Parliament, in an attempt to look and control the virus that is clearly out of control.”

Ms Sturgeon said that people watching FMQs would “breathe a sigh of relief” that Mr Sawar was not in her place. “Clever quips might sound good in a student union but when you’re trying to deal with a global pandemic it is more important that you have the you have the solutions that help to keep people safe.”

She pointed to other countries in Europe using vaccine certification and said these were “pushing up rates of vaccination uptake, and also helping to constrain and reduce transmission”.

She said passports were part of a “basket of measures” and that Scotland was “behind the curve” in a European sense in their introduction.

"We do suggest to people that they test themselves regularly,” she said. “But one of the constraints of LFT testing, which means it doesn't make sense to put too much reliance on them for the kind of thing that we're talking about, is that they are self reported and this is a point that I heard the UK vaccines minister make yesterday in the House of Commons. So we've got to be careful that we don't introduce a false security around a system like that.

"The other point is that you can still get the virus if you're vaccinated. Well, anybody looking at the statistics just knows that. But vaccination reduces your risk of getting the virus. So if you're saying to somebody, do you want to be in a nightclub where some people are unvaccinated? Or do you want to be in a nightclub where everybody's vaccinated? In the latter your risk of getting the virus is going to be significantly lower than in the former.

"So many countries are already doing this and are actually finding, in reality, the benefits of this, so let's get on with it, and discharge our responsibility to keep this country as safe as possible.”

However, the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA) Scotland Commission, the body representing the businesses, employees, freelancers and supply chain that make up the night time economy across Scotland, has also issued a plea to Nicola Sturgeon to abandon her plans for vaccine passports.

In an open letter to the First Minister, chair of the NTIA Scotland Commission, Mike Grieve, said vaccine passports will “cripple” the sector which had found pandemic restrictions “devastating.”

Mr Grieve also said there had been a lack of meaningful consultation with the sector about the policy, and accused ministers of “putting their heads in the sand”.

“Vaccine passports will further cripple an industry that has already borne so much in terms of the costs of this pandemic" he said. “It has been devastating to business. We are warning the First Minister that by going down the vaccine passports route she is making a serious error.

“With so many pubs and bars offering similar services to nightclubs, and with so many nightclubs offering an array of different services, it is almost impossible to identify with any sort of precision what a ‘nightclub’ is. Leaving out the rest of hospitality from the policy will only displace the transmission risk to other settings.

“Although Scottish Government officials have engaged with the sector following the policy announcement two weeks ago, it has become obvious that not one of the concerns we have raised is being seriously contemplated by ministers – despite the policy being implemented as early as next month.

“We have said repeatedly that, if it must happen, negative testing and natural immunity should be included for certification. But it feels like they have been burying their heads in the sand. Even at this late stage, we are making a plea today to the Scottish Government to change course.”

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