Throughout the Covid pandemic, the Scottish Government has taken actions that are proportionate to the nature and the circumstances of the challenges that we have faced. It is for that reason that we have brought forward for debate our proposal to introduce a mandatory domestic vaccine certification scheme for a limited number of events.
The situation in which we find ourselves is currently fragile. Despite the vaccine, we have seen over the past fortnight that the number of weekly cases has increased from 26,167 to 44,198, the number of people in hospital with Covid has increased from 391 to 883 and the number in intensive care has increased from 44 to 82. However, despite that concerning growth in the number of cases and the levels of hospitalisation, we all recognise the need to do all that we can to protect the return to greater normality that we have experienced in recent weeks, and I believe we are all are committed to doing that.
In June, the Government changed its strategic intent from suppressing the virus to the lowest possible level to a broader view that recognises all possible harms, including social and economic ones. We accepted that measures such as physical distancing placed considerable burdens on our economy that could not be judged proportionate, so we removed the majority of remaining restrictions on 9 August while retaining an effective baseline of public health measures. That baseline includes test and protect, the use of face coverings in certain settings and continued emphasis on good hygiene and ventilation.
Of course, it is the extraordinary vaccination programme, in which 84 per cent of all over-18-year-olds are now fully vaccinated, that allowed us to make that move beyond level 0. I pay full credit again to the teams the length and breadth of the country who have now delivered more than 7 million Covid vaccinations since the first one was delivered, on 8 December 2020.
Just as vaccinations change the game in relation to the Covid response, the arrival of the now predominant delta variant has led to the fragile position that exists today. Vaccination has significantly reduced the link between cases and serious health harm from Covid, and the proportion of people with the virus ending up in hospital is now much lower than it was before the vaccine programme.
I will, in a second.
That link has weakened but has not been entirely broken. With our national health service under immense pressure as we catch up with delayed treatment and care, we need to reduce the number of people who are in hospital with Covid-related issues.
I give way to Mr Rennie.
Today at First Minister’s question tim, the First Minister quoted Professor Reicher, but her description of his views was not complete. He says that vaccine certificates could “lead to riskier behaviours” and could make some people less likely to get vaccinated. Will the cabinet secretary give a more comprehensive account of Professor Reicher’s views than the selective one that was given at lunch time?
I have read Professor Reicher’s thread on Twitter today. It is a balanced thread, because it goes through the arguments that justify the application of a vaccine certification scheme and the circumstances in which it would work—when high levels of trust exist in the advice and guidance that are in place—while highlighting the issues that could potentially lead to the reinforcement of vaccine anxiety.
It is a balanced argument, and, although I do not have her words to hand, it is my recollection that the First Minister indicated at lunch time that Professor Reicher’s assessment was balanced in setting out the pros and cons of the steps that the Government takes. Ultimately, it is a matter of judgment, and I will set out the rationale as to why the Government has come to the conclusions that it has.
Mr Swinney is correct in saying that it is a matter of judgment: in two hours, the Parliament will be asked to vote on whether we approve the scheme. Paragraph 3 of this morning’s paper from the Scottish Government says that the Scottish Government
“will continue to gather evidence from around the world on certification schemes” and that it
“will also publish a full assessment of the evidence for certification.”
Why has that evidence not been made available to Parliament before we are asked to vote on the scheme?
The Government has today published a paper that sets out the details of the scheme and the approach that we intend to take. Mr Fraser is a member of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee and knows that there is a constantly emerging evidence base on all Covid-related matters. He also knows that Parliament will have to consider Covid-related regulations in addition to the decisions that it is invited to take today.
In those circumstances, I believe that it is necessary and appropriate for us not to return to the restrictions of the past but to take further proportionate, effective and targeted action that, when possible, minimises the harm that restrictions cause to businesses, young people’s education and our overall wellbeing.
If Mr Kerr will allow me, I will make more progress.
It is precisely in that context that we propose to introduce a mandatory domestic vaccination certification scheme. The scheme is not an additional layer of restriction being imposed on a world that is essentially back to normal, but a proportionate response to a world where a continued risk of serious harm from Covid exists, where our hospitals are under strain and where we are beginning to see the serious impact of long Covid.
If the choice is between sectors and settings being closed and a limited certification scheme being used to keep them open, the Government believes that it is right to make a choice in favour of a limited certification scheme.
In the very short paper that the Government produced this morning, under “Costs”, it says:
“Any additional staffing or infrastructure costs will be met by businesses.”
What assessment has been made of the economic impact on affected businesses?
Part of that analysis must take into account the point that I have just put on the record. Because of the escalating challenges of Covid, we might have to consider further restrictions, which would have an economic impact as a consequence. We are trying to avoid that consequence. We are saying that this will have a lesser and more proportionate impact on society as a consequence, and businesses will have to respond accordingly.
I have a lot of detail that I want to get on the record today, if Mr Kerr will forgive me.
As with all Covid measures, certification has provoked controversy and debate. I encourage Parliament to consider the clinical justification for a vaccine certification scheme. There is clear clinical evidence that double vaccination significantly reduces the likelihood that a person will get Covid-19. There is also clear clinical evidence that certain settings are associated with the risk of spikes in infections. We know about the risks of settings where large numbers gather or where people spend time close together, particularly indoors. We also know that activity associated with very large events will pose risks. We saw, for example, a marked spike around the Euro 2020 tournament. Therefore ensuring that only those who are double vaccinated attend those higher-risk venues and events can directly reduce the risk of transmission in such settings.
I will come on to that in due course.
We accept, of course, that the extent of protection against transmission from our vaccines is certainly lower now with delta than with the previous dominant variant. It does not eliminate the risk, but it is likely that it does reduce the risk—[
.] I am going to have to make some more progress and get this on the record.
So, any certification scheme cannot be based on a guarantee of no transmission. It is about allowing some of our higher-risk settings to operate more safely when the potential alternative would be closure. Furthermore, it will help to protect those who are more vulnerable, such as those who either cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, or who, because of underlying medical conditions, do not respond effectively to the vaccine.
In addition, we believe that certification will encourage a proportion of the eligible population who remain unvaccinated to get vaccinated. We have seen that in other jurisdictions.
Of course, as with any Covid measure, we should not use it for a moment longer than it is needed. Regulations will be reviewed against the policy’s intention to reduce transmission and boost vaccination take-up, and they will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. They will be reviewed every three weeks. Any certification regulations will expire on 28 February 2022, as with all other Covid measures under the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Requirements) (Scotland) Regulations 2021. It would require a further decision by this Parliament to extend them further.
I now turn to the details of the scheme itself. Yesterday, we published in the Scottish Parliament information centre a paper setting out the rationale for domestic certification and how we expect it will work. In that paper, we indicated our intention to launch the scheme on 1 October. We accept that that is only a few weeks from now, but, if it is to be effective in the current fragile context, we believe that we need to take rapid action.
We do not believe that domestic vaccine certification should ever be a requirement for any key services or in settings where people have no choice over attendance. We continue to hold very firmly to that position.
As the First Minister set out in her statement to Parliament last week, we propose that vaccination certification be introduced once all adults have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated and for the following events and venues: nightclubs and analogous settings; sexual entertainment venues; unseated indoor live events with more than 500 people in the audience; unseated outdoor live events with more than 4,000 people in the audience; and any event that has more than 10,000 people in attendance.
I still have pace. Does the Deputy First Minister accept that the major issue for Conservative members is the lack of clarity around the practicality of implementation of the vaccine passports? For example, what would happen in venues that are not set up for digital reading of QR codes or venues that have automated entry? Who would be responsible for policing and bearing the costs of that? The practicalities of the proposal that has been brought to Parliament have not been properly considered.
I will move on to some of those details for the benefit of Mr Whittle.
We want the vaccine certification process to be as simple as possible. There are just a few steps involved. From 30 September, people will be able to use the NHS Scotland Covid status app, which also has a QR code. Anyone who is unable to use the app will be able to request a secure, uneditable paper record of vaccination. That will replace the current interim solution for accessing records of vaccination.
Staff in the affected venues will be able to download the NHS Scotland Covid check verifier app to a smartphone or device.
Mr Whittle asked me to put some detail on the record, and it is important that I do that, for the sake of clarity.
The Covid check verifier app will be available during the course of the next week, well in advance of the launch of the scheme. Detailed guidance will be provided for venues on how to use the app, and there will be options for venues to integrate the verifier functionality into their own systems, as the source code is open source.
A person who, for medical reasons, cannot be vaccinated will be able to apply for a document that says that they are exempt. Those who are on clinical trials should already have their exemption letter, and they will be able to show that instead of a record of vaccination.
The introduction of Covid vaccine certificates—even in the limited circumstances that I have set out—is a significant development, but the evidence base for their introduction in Scotland is not unique. There are no factors to do with the virus or our circumstances that mean that the measure is unreasonable in Scotland but reasonable elsewhere. The UK Government has announced its intention to introduce certification for England, and several European countries, including France, Italy and Ireland, have already introduced certification. Indeed, certification schemes in other countries often cover a wider range of venues than the ones that we are currently considering for Scotland.
As I have indicated, the Government has set out to Parliament details of the nature of the scheme. We put those proposals to Parliament as part of our approach to protecting people in the very fragile situation that we face in Scotland and in hospitality of rising infection, which poses a threat to our national health service. We are trying to take proportionate action to protect the public from the coronavirus, and I encourage Parliament to support the measures by supporting the motion.
That the Parliament commends the extraordinary effort of vaccination teams throughout Scotland, which means that, as of 6 September 2021, 84% of eligible over 18-year-olds were double-vaccinated against COVID-19; recognises that case numbers remain stubbornly high and that action is needed from all sectors to ensure that baseline COVID measures are rigorously implemented; acknowledges that a number of other countries have introduced COVID certification schemes and that the UK Government has plans to introduce a vaccine certification scheme in England; believes that, in line with the Scottish Government’s strategic intent, a COVID Vaccine Certification scheme can provide a targeted means to maximise Scotland's ability to keep certain higher risk settings open, while reducing the impact of transmission and encouraging the remaining sections of the population to get vaccinated; supports the implementation of a COVID Vaccine Certification scheme; agrees that the scheme will apply to nightclubs, sexual entertainment venues, indoor unseated live events with 500 or more attendees, outdoor unseated live events with 4,000 or more attendees and all events with 10,000 or more attendees; notes that measures are being taken to ensure digital inclusivity and to ensure that disabled people are not disproportionately impacted, and agrees that this scheme will be kept under regular review.
In the arrangements that have prevailed so far, there has been no necessity to distinguish between nightclubs and pubs and hospitality venues that may open later in the evening and into the early hours of the morning.
In order to avoid market distortion, the circumstances that we face require us to more precisely define the distinction between nightclubs and those venues that could appear similar to nightclubs but have a different purpose. That is the subject of further discussion with the night-time industries sector that will enable us to come to conclusions that will be set out in the regulations.
I am unsure what we are expected to do as parliamentarians and as people who have been sent here to scrutinise the Government. Nicola Sturgeon announced the plans a week ago. We were told that we would get a paper setting out how vaccine passports would work. The Deputy First Minister fumbled around for a minute trying to explain what a nightclub is, yet he wants members to impose vaccine passports on those establishments without us knowing which establishments the passports will affect.
A responsible Government should bring forward only proposals that are ready to be enacted. Further consultation is not suitable if the Government wants the support of members.
I absolutely do not agree. I cannot remember the exact words, but the Deputy First Minister said that he accepted that the measure is being introduced in short order. A proposal that is put forward by this Government to be introduced in short order will not be scrutinised by the COVID-19 Recovery Committee before it is implemented. I understand from Murdo Fraser that that scrutiny will happen only after the measures come into force on 1 October. These are legitimate questions, and that is why the Deputy First Minister refused to respond to my intervention during his speech and still cannot tell Parliament or the watching public what a nightclub is with reference to the vaccine passport that he wants to impose on those nightclubs.
I was a councillor for a decade. I did the training to be a member of a licensing board and I sat on a board. There was no such definition, so I am not sure that Gillian Martin sat on such a board—she cannot have done the training if that is what she thinks.
As politicians seeking to make a decision on an extremely important subject, we are in a really difficult position if the Government cannot give us even simple information about what is or is not a nightclub.
We were told to expect a paper that would, in broad terms, tell us what to expect. That paper was published only hours before this debate. In its 2,000 words, it still does not define a nightclub but says that there will be costs to businesses for additional staffing and infrastructure. The Deputy First Minister has accepted that he has no idea what those costs will be. The paper also states that the app will have to be updated. Therefore, the Government is going to introduce something for venues that the Deputy First Minister cannot define and with an app that will have to be updated because it is not ready yet. The paper also does not provide sector-specific detail on how the scheme will be operated. Sectors have been crying out for that detail since vaccine passports were first announced, a week ago.
Nicola Sturgeon, the Deputy First Minister and the coalition want us to vote for the measure without giving us that information. Today’s vote is another example of how the SNP Government plans to disregard the Parliament’s views for the next five years in bringing forward proposals. The SNP already knows that its plans will pass and that the coalition that it has formed with the Greens means that the measure will go through despite all the concerns that we will hear today from across the chamber.
I will just finish this point and then I will give way.
It is not only me saying that as the leader of the main Opposition party in Holyrood; the opposition is coming from industry, so it is good that the Deputy First Minister wishes to come in on this point. Stephen Montgomery of the Scottish hospitality group said this morning:
“You can guarantee that, with the coalition, it will just be steamrollered through Parliament. We haven’t been told anything, Absolutely nothing. We don’t know how it’s going to work, we don’t know the cost implications. We don’t know who it is going to affect.”
I am sorry for Stephen Montgomery and the members of the Scottish hospitality group, but I do not think that this debate will tell him the answers that he needs either.
On the issues that Mr Ross raises, we have of course published detail, we have provided more detail to Parliament today, and we will continue the dialogue with sectors such as those that Mr Montgomery represents.
I ask Mr Ross to set out to Parliament the steps that he believes we should take, given the rising threat of the coronavirus and the delta variant, to avoid the application of further restrictions.
I did that yesterday. We have to do far more with test and protect. I know that the First Minister does not like politicians raising concerns about test and protect, but there are issues with it. They are nothing to do with the staff, who are doing an outstanding job, but we know that staff are now being told, “Don’t continually phone a Covid-positive patient if you can’t get through to them.” If we do not get on top of people who test positive for Covid and find out who they have been in contact with, we will not get on top of the virus.
Surely, we should be striving to put in place simple measures to get test and protect working to its maximum, rather than implementing the scheme that the Deputy First Minister proposes. I think that he is uncomfortable leading the debate, as I do not believe that he wants to come to the chamber and seek support for proposals that he has not thought through and on which he does not have answers.
I did not read all of the quote from Stephen Montgomery, but he went on to ask for something specific. It might be useful if I mention that, because what we have heard from the Government not just today but over the past week is that it does not understand business. It does not interact with businesses to listen to their concerns and try to adapt proposals that will affect them. Stephen Montgomery went on to say:
“I would call on the First Minister or Deputy First Minister to actually come and work at one of our venues on a busy Saturday night and see the effect of their policy decisions.”
Will the Deputy First Minister accept that offer?
Presiding Officer, the apology should come from the Deputy First Minister. He is going to cause untold damage and uncertainty to a number of industries. When a simple invite to join the industry to see how the proposal is going to impact on it is met with nothing but a smirk from the Deputy First Minister, I think that that tells us everything that we need to know about this SNP Government.
.] I am sorry, Mr Stewart—[
.] Well, I am sorry—
I will not. I think that we have heard enough from a sedentary position from Mr Stewart.
There was a lot that I wanted to say in this debate, but I think that the most telling thing so far has been what we have not heard. [
.] I am sorry, but I will not give way. I need to make progress.
We have heard no details from the Deputy First Minister or the First Minister. Along with other Opposition parties and the industries involved, we have been asking questions for a week. The question tonight is whether Parliament will vote for the proposals. The Scottish Conservatives cannot support what is being put forward. We will not support this SNP-Green coalition to bring in the plans. The Government has made no effort to bring the Opposition parties in the chamber or the public on board with its proposals. There has been no effort to inform, persuade or consult. For those reasons, the Scottish Conservatives will vote against the proposals tonight.
I move amendment S6M-01123.2, to leave out from “recognises” to end and insert:
“notes that the Scottish Government has rushed out its proposals for COVID-19 vaccine certification without proper consultation or the infrastructure in place to deliver them; notes that the Deputy First Minister described the introduction of a certification scheme as the ‘wrong way to go’; recognises that the affected businesses have not been able to prepare for the introduction of a certification scheme, and believes that, for these reasons, this COVID-19 vaccine certification scheme should not be introduced.”
T he one thing that all of us in the chamber can agree is that we want to control the spread of Covid-19. The more people who get Covid, the more people who will end up ill, with some ending up in hospital, and the more people who will run the risk of having long Covid. Controlling and suppressing the virus must be the major public health priority. How we can do that while keeping the country open for business is the exam question for us all, and my starting point is to consider very carefully any and all suggestions from the Government, the World Health Organization and other experts.
The First Minister suggested that we should all read Professor Reicher’s tweets and, although I am yet to be convinced of policy making by Twitter, I nevertheless did so. I have to say that they do not give the First Minister the cover that she wants. He warns that
“passports can be seen as a form of compulsion” and lead to “increasing alienation” in society. We know from other experts that there is a danger that vaccine hesitancy becomes entrenched, which can limit the number of people who can be persuaded to be vaccinated. Professor Reicher goes on to say that we run the danger of exacerbating inequality, as we could
“leave pockets of low vaccination and ... high infection in some communities.”
Almost 60,000 people were consulted by the UK Government. How many has the Scottish Government consulted? Has it even spoken to the businesses that will be responsible for implementing the scheme? There seems to have been little meaningful engagement according to the night-time and hospitality industries. By the Government’s own admission in the document published yesterday, it has not even based it on evidence.
The problems with the current system are fast becoming legend—those on clinical trials not getting certificates; those who got a dose elsewhere not being recorded; those whose data does not match and is wrong. There is a practical question of the Government’s ability to implement the scheme.
We all know that Covid positive case numbers are very high—frighteningly so—but we need to understand what works and not simply reach for anything just to be seen to be taking action, and end up making matters worse.
Stephen Reicher also warns that vaccination does not stop transmission. To repeat Anas Sarwar’s comments at First Minister’s question time, it is the case someone could be vaccinated and have a vaccination certificate but still be carrying Covid, and they will be allowed into a nightclub to infect everyone else. It is nonsensical, and the Government is in danger of giving people a false sense of confidence. They are not invincible simply because they have a certificate.
There is no doubt that the vaccine reduces the gravity of the infection, but it does not stop someone from getting Covid, so we need to do more. I agree with the comments made by the First Minister, which were plagiarised from Stephen Reicher: we need a basket of measures. What should be in that basket?
First, we need better uptake of vaccinations. There are still 200,000 people waiting more than 8 weeks for their second dose. They want to be vaccinated, so why is the Government so slow? [
.] Let me say, as gently as I can, that I will take as many interventions from Scottish National Party members as John Swinney took from Labour members. Those paying attention will know that that was zero. [
.] Let me make progress.
The Government has been too slow. Then there are people who are genuinely hesitant and who need reassurance, such as pregnant women and young people concerned about the impact on their fertility. Where is the specialist advice or public information campaign? You need to be where the people are, rather than waiting for them to come to you, so we need vaccination centres in nightclubs and pubs, in schools and colleges, in football grounds and anywhere that young people congregate. We could even consider incentives, as other countries have done.
What about action on ventilation systems? Schools do not have adequate ventilation systems, nor do businesses, and very few of our public buildings have them either. Where is the action to improve that? Experts tell us that that makes a real difference to transmission, so why is so little happening on that front?
What about testing? Scottish Labour has said quite clearly that we favour making a negative polymerase chain reaction or lateral flow test the basis for entry to large events or certain venues. That is a proportionate measure that actually identifies Covid cases, and many organisations already use it. [
.] The member maybe did not hear me the first time, but I will take as many interventions from SNP members as John Swinney did from Labour members.
That takes me on to test and protect, which should be a key weapon in the Scottish Government’s fight against Covid. Finding positive cases, self-isolation and identifying close contacts are essential if we are to suppress the virus, so why is the Scottish Government moving at a snail’s pace? The lack of action on that front is, frankly, dangerous.
The staff at test and protect do their very best, but they are underresourced and overwhelmed. As case levels have increased, contact tracing has decreased. Calls have been limited to those who test positive; not even close contacts are getting a call or a text message—it is just silence—and so Covid spreads. It used to be that an average of 3.3 people would be contacted for each case; now the figure has dropped to 1.5. Test and protect staff are simply not coping.
Where is the surge capacity? It appears to be non-existent or it simply comes too late. In fact, I know that some contact tracers are being paid off. Despite the First Minister’s spin yesterday, we know that only 60 per cent of the 82 per cent of cases contacted were contacted in under 72 hours—that is 20 per cent less than the World Health Organization says is required. The Government is failing to get the most basic measures right, and so Covid spreads. Instead of adding more untested measures to the basket, which may not have the desired effect, why does the Government not try something entirely novel, such as trying to get it right? Try to get right what is already there and we know works.
When I started to consider the issue last week and looked for evidence, I came across lots of commentary. Humza Yousaf, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, has said that he was “instinctively sceptical” about vaccine passports. John Swinney, Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery, has said that vaccine passports are “the wrong way” to go, while Ian Blackford, SNP leader at Westminster, has said that
There are many more. I could not forget my old friend Patrick Harvie from the Greens. Before his elevation to the ministerial benches, he used to think that passports would “deepen discrimination”, “set a dangerous precedent” and “create generational injustice”. They say that a week is a long time in politics. Clearly it is enough time to jettison one’s principles. Yes, we need to take further action, because case numbers are rising, but vaccine passports are not the silver bullet.
I move amendment S6M-01123.3, to leave out from “rigorously implemented” to end and insert:
“effective at containing the spread; notes suggestions that vaccine certification could increase vaccine hesitancy; believes that the approach to improving uptake should be based on persuasion and that, to support the vaccination of young people and harder to reach groups, the government must improve the accessibility of vaccination, with greater use of mobile vaccination clinics and particularly in schools, at events and in areas of low coverage; acknowledges that individuals may still be able to pass on the virus even if fully vaccinated, especially with the transmissibility of the Delta variant, and so considers that proof of a negative test should be more important than vaccination for entry to higher risk locations; notes with concern the declining ability of Test and Protect to carry out effective contact tracing, and calls on the government to prioritise investment in the service so that it has the resources required to contain the virus.”
Let me be clear: vaccines are, without question, our best route out of the pandemic, but vaccine passports are not. Scottish Liberal Democrats are fundamentally opposed to the introduction of mandatory vaccine certification on grounds of both ideology and practicality.
I start by expressing my dismay and that of those on the Liberal Democrat benches that, on such a change to the operation of both venues and events, and on such a recalibration of our civil liberties, the Government has failed to produce any substantive detail for the introduction of these measures. We have heard a lot already about how the Government will define a nightclub. The paper provided accepts that that is a problem, but it does not answer it. All the while, business owners are in the dark as to how they will be classified or what will be required of them, just days before the scheme goes live. The paper is also silent on how certification will handle those who have been vaccinated elsewhere or who have been lost in the system. It does not address the booster programme either. There is a shocking paucity of detail for what could prove yet another crushing burden to an industry that is already on its knees.
When she first raised the issue of the measures in Parliament last week, the First Minister quoted Geoff Ellis as the sector leader who she claimed had voiced support for the scheme. He has been misquoted. I met Geoff and other leaders in the Night Time Industries Association on Monday, and they have many concerns about the plans, not least because they are sceptical that they will even work. We know that vaccines do not stop people getting Covid or passing it on, but to ask that everyone presents a certificate before entry to a nightclub or sports ground could give people a false sense of security. It might lead customers to let their guard down and abandon some of the precautions that we have all adopted in the past 18 months, which could lead to increased transmission.
Industry leaders believe that it would be far better for customers, if needs be, to present a negative lateral flow test to confirm their Covid status before entry. LFT requirements are different from vaccine certification, because they do not compel you to access a form of treatment and then present a record of that treatment to access freedoms in our society. Test results provide you, and venue staff, with a snapshot of your health on any particular day, much like a breathalyser in the hands of a police officer on the side of the road.
Above all, Liberals are fundamentally opposed to vaccine passports on ethical grounds. That is because—I cannot believe that I have to say this—you should never have to provide any aspect of your medical history to a bouncer to get into a nightclub. For the first time, citizens will be asked to provide private medical data to a stranger who is not their clinician if they want to enjoy access to venues or other services in our society.
The third-last paragraph of the Government briefing indicates that there will be a photographic element to the process, which the
Sunday Post reported might be the case. Vaccine certification represents the introduction of medical identification cards in all but name. The proposals cross an important line in the principle of government by consent in this country. The administration of a free society should never compel its citizens to receive medical treatment, and a policy that would restrict or remove the freedoms of people who have not consented to treatment does exactly that. Additionally, if the Government wants to increase vaccine uptake in those groups in our society that are hesitant, I am not even sure that the threatened removal of their freedoms will cut it. In France, of which we have already heard mention, vaccine certification has been the norm for many months, but there is already a black market for vaccine certificates.
I turn to the sensitive matter of the vaccination of children. The paper that we have been given exempts people under 18, but it suggests that that age threshold will be lowered as the cohort receives the double dose of vaccine. We know that the coalition Government is actively considering the extension of the vaccination programme to 12 to 16-year-olds. That might be the right thing to do, but, if it happens, the hesitation of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on the matter will give many families pause. It will be a judgment call for young people and their parents, and they should face no coercion of any kind before making that finely balanced decision. Therefore, at no point should we require a 13-year-old with a season ticket at Ibrox or Tannadice to evidence their vaccination status in order to attend a game—it would artificially put pressure on them to get vaccinated. I invite the cabinet secretary to confirm in his closing remarks that young people will be exempted from the scheme at all times.
I want to express how saddened I am by the U-turn of the Green Party on this matter. The party of Robin Harper would not have abandoned its principled opposition to this illiberal policy. Gillian Mackay has described this assault on our civil liberties as the “least worst” option—I am sure that she wants to believe that. With only seven days’ notice, a myriad of unanswered questions, no proposed end date for the passports and an open door to their expansion, the Greens will act as midwives tonight to a policy that sets our country on a disturbing and illiberal course. Medical ID cards will be introduced by the coalition tonight, and the Liberals will immediately begin the campaign for their abolition.
“Nightclubs, sexual entertainment venues, indoor unseated live events with 500 or more attendees, outdoor unseated live events with 4,000 or more attendees and all events with 10,000 or more attendees”— the managed entry to and the hazard mitigation of those venues and events is what we are talking about.
Two themes have emerged in the debate. One is health protection, on a number of fronts, and one is choice. It remains a person’s choice to get the vaccine and protect themselves against Covid—that is a choice that the vast majority of us have made. It is also a person’s choice to decide whether to attend high-risk events that will require a vaccination certificate, such as those that are outlined. Of course, a person does not have to go to a nightclub, football match or live concert, but, if they do, we ask that they take responsibility for the protection of their own health in that venue.
Yes, I have Moray Council’s definition on my phone. If the member will give me a minute, I will bring it up.
I am taking a bit of time out of my speech to do this, but I will tell the member that it says that the primary function “may include dancing”, that it would have “more people standing than sitting” and would be “open from 1 am to 5 am”. That is Moray Council’s list.
Aberdeenshire Council has one as well. [
.] I think that it depends on the council. To be honest, Presiding Officer, I am struggling to think of a nightclub in Aberdeenshire, because I am not familiar with those any more, being a bit of an old bird who stays at home. I will go back to my speech.
If people choose to go to one of those venues, we are asking them to take responsibility for their own health protection in that venue. That is not the only mitigation, but it is part of a whole strategy that may allow a semblance of normal life to return. It is right to analyse periodically the effects of the measure. Like everything in this dreadful pandemic, we are in largely uncharted waters and we have to make decisions fast, in the interests of our public health.
Quite a few restrictions are imposed on entry to such venues already, and I do not think that it is unreasonable to turn someone away if there is concern that entry into that high-risk environment may result in that person’s admission to hospital. I would certainly feel happier about going to a live music event if I knew that the people with whom I came into contact were at a smaller risk of ending up in an intensive care unit.
If the personal responsibility aspect is not something that one cares about—and I am not suggesting that any member is in that bracket—how about the effect on our national health service capacity of large numbers of unvaccinated people going into high-risk areas and becoming seriously ill?
We also need to find a way for such events, which support the livelihood of a great many of our young people in particular, to recommence safely. We have heard so many times about how our creative industries have suffered economically, with many of that workforce not being eligible for furlough because they are self-employed. To help with allowing work on live events to begin again more safely, it is not too much to ask customers to download a certificate, which they can do in a matter of seconds.
As someone who used to work at front of house in an entertainment venue, albeit quite a few years ago, I know how challenging it can be to manage entry, and I completely get how the addition of checking on a certification requirement might impact on that process. I agree that businesses need guidance and support when we ask them to change their practices, and they must be involved in working out how that is to be done.
Many members have mentioned Stephen Reicher, so we should look at his tweets. I have a few of them in my speech. He says:
“Certainly if people are fully vaccinated it reduces the probability of getting infected and passing on infections. It therefore makes venues safer and gives confidence to more vulnerable members of the community”.
“But equally, vaccines do not provide total protection against infection and transmission. If the impression is given that passports are a total solution and that people are entirely safe once fully vaccinated, then it may lead to riskier behaviours”.
A few members have made that point. Stephen Reicher has also tweeted:
“for safety as for take-up the effects are mixed and are contingent”.
That is nuanced. The situation is not straightforward. There is a lot in that tweet. Jackie Baillie was right to say that certification is not a silver bullet. No one is saying that it is. It is part of a suite of measures. Stephen Reicher has tweeted that
“vaccine passports may ... contribute to a strategy of reducing infection and reopening society safely” but that they cannot be
“the sole piece of such a strategy.”
Last winter was miserable. That second lockdown was awful for us all. I lost a person who was very close to me. My constituents lost people who were close to them. We had to stay apart from our loved ones and there was nothing from out there that we could do to lift ourselves out of the despair that so many of us felt. None of us wants to go back to that. Some tools are available to us that can help us to avoid that. If certification is one tool that we can deploy to reduce the risk, mitigate the spread and get us to where we all so desperately want to be, I am all for it, as long as its effect is continually reviewed.
Over the past 18 months, we, as a Parliament, have not shied away from making really hard decisions that have imposed restrictions that we never thought that we would have to contemplate. We have done that in order to protect the health of our people—the people of Scotland. That is what will be in my mind at decision time, when I support certification on public health grounds.
The coronavirus is the biggest threat that this country has faced in decades. The pandemic that it has provoked has made us challenge long-held beliefs about the way in which we live our lives, the role of the state, individual freedoms and the finely balanced relationship between our rights and responsibilities. The public health emergency has forced many of us to set aside significant doubts about the interventions taken by Government. A silent killer was ravaging our care homes and indiscriminately killing our friends and family members. The stakes were simply too high not to take unprecedented action. However, let us not dodge the elephant in the room. No liberal Conservative such as I am would have handed those fundamental freedoms to the state in any other circumstance or on a never-ending basis.
The question that we must consider today is whether the Covid passport plan will work and whether it is the most effective way and the most practical mechanism to prevent the on-going harm caused by Covid.
Until a matter of only a few days ago, senior SNP figures appeared to be against Covid passports. Let us take as an example Mr Brassneck himself, Ian Blackford. Speaking about the United Kingdom Government’s plans, the SNP’s Westminster leader raised “serious concerns over ethics”. He said that there were concerns about “equity, ethics and privacy”. Ian Blackford is not the only member of the SNP to pivot on a pinhead. When the Deputy First Minister was asked in late July on “Good Morning Scotland” about the merits of barring the unvaccinated from certain events, he said:
“I think it’s the wrong way to handle it.”
“I would be much more convinced by an argument that was about engaging people ... and explaining the rationale”.
What about Mr Swinney’s coalition partners? Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater will today vote for measures that they vehemently opposed only a fortnight ago. That is despite Mr Harvie’s belief that vaccine passports
“could set a dangerous precedent for the longer term”.—[
, 23 February 2021; c 18.]
I do not think that anyone is dismissing the concerns that have been expressed in approaching the issue. Even the public health experts who recommend the policy understand the concerns. However, there is a very big difference between thinking that the policy should have been approved when cases were running at a few hundred a day and thinking that it is worth considering when cases are running at around 7,000 a day and the entire adult population has had the opportunity to have both vaccines. Does Craig Hoy acknowledge that, when the facts change, people should at least ask themselves whether they have made the right judgment?
Patrick Harvie has been in government for one week and already the SNP’s army of spin doctors have got their claws into him. Let us be in no doubt that the Greens have traded in their tandem for a pair of ministerial limousines and that they have left their principles on the pavement.
Throughout the pandemic, Scots have largely done what has been asked of them. We were told to stay at home to save lives, protect the NHS and defeat the virus, and we did. We were told to close our businesses, which put livelihoods on the line, and many of us did. We were told not to visit sick and dying relatives, and many of us did not. We were told to bury our dead without family and friends there to mourn them, and we did. That was the price of regaining our freedom.
The incursion into our lives caused by Covid has been unimaginable, but it has also been largely justifiable and based on practical and workable solutions. However, the issue that is before us today is different. Many Scots have raised legitimate concerns about civil liberties. What is being proposed means that, for the first time, Scots will have to provide private medical information to strangers in order to access some of the most basic things in our society. Critics say that that will create a two-tier Scotland: the have vaccines and the have nots.
What will those with medical conditions do? Can the Deputy First Minister guarantee that the exemption scheme will be operable from 1 October? We know that the vaccine uptake among those from deprived or ethnic minority backgrounds remains lower than it is in the population as a whole. The move risks further entrenching inequality.
The Government insists that the scheme will not be in operation for a moment longer than it needs to be, but it is commonly accepted that we cannot eliminate Covid, so surely the logic of the Government’s position is that passports will be here to stay. In its headlong rush—[
.] I will give way.
I invite Mr Hoy to follow through the logic of the argument that he has already put to the Parliament. He has himself acknowledged that regulations and restrictions have been removed when the situation has improved. It is exactly the same here. We are saying that the certification passports will in place for a period up until the end of February 2022—but they would automatically expire at that moment—because we face the challenge of autumn and winter on the very high threshold of cases that exists today, which did not exist at previous stages in the pandemic.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
We have seen, time and again, how the Government has not handed back the powers: it keeps seeking to extend them, and it is confirming that it will not necessarily withdraw them. It did that in June for the powers that could have—[
.] No, I will not give way; I really must make some progress.
Notwithstanding what the Deputy First Minister says about the nature and timing of the powers, what evidence does he have that the policy will increase vaccine take-up? Even if it does, will it not undermine testing, creating a sense of reassurance that nightclubs are Covid free?
Let us consider the challenges faced by the industry. How will the equipment be rolled out? When will the beta testing of the app take place? Who will man the checkpoints? Who will pay for them? We found out today that it will be hard-pressed businesses all over again. What will we do for those people who do not possess smartphones? How long will it take for the authorities to make and distribute the paper certificates?
The SNP Government should stop, pause and consult further on the concerns that have been raised. The Scottish Government has failed to prepare the Scottish public or Scottish business for the introduction of the system. It has not addressed the problems raised by business, and it has glossed over legitimate concerns about civil liberties. It is for those reasons that I will vote against vaccine passports today.
The first duty of any Government is to protect its citizens. The pandemic has presented the biggest challenge to our way of life, our prosperity and our communities. When I spoke in the programme for government debate on Tuesday, I said that serious times required serious and responsible government, and that is what we have in what is being proposed today.
Let us look at the fundamental facts. Vaccination reduces transmission and significantly reduces the risk of serious illness—of that there is no doubt. We know that far fewer people are dying from Covid-19 than before the vaccination programme was rolled out. That is why we must all do what we can to ensure that people take up the offer of a vaccine, to protect themselves and those around us.
We must also ensure that there is enough capacity in our health and social care system—and nobody has touched on that today at all. In an ideal world, we would not be considering Covid vaccine certification. Like others, I do not want it to be in place for any longer than is necessary. However, the alternative may lead us to the possibility of facing further periods of closure for some of the higher-risk settings. That is the reality. [
.] Sorry, but I will not take an intervention. I have a lot to get through.
We need to undertake the most proportionate actions to keep people as safe as possible in the venues that they visit, particularly in what is likely to be a very challenging winter period. We know that the highest risk is among unvaccinated individuals, who are significantly more likely to get infected.
I think that has been mentioned, and Public Health Scotland has covered that in various briefings that it has had.
I want to move on. That is the reality. However, we need to undertake the most proportionate actions to keep people in venues as safe as possible in what, as I said, will be a very challenging winter period.
As I have said, vaccination reduces transmission and significantly reduces the risk of serious illness. We have heard questions about whether vaccine certification will increase vaccine hesitancy. We have examples. A certification scheme has been introduced in France, and there has been an announcement of such a scheme in Israel. Both of those schemes have been associated with significant increases in vaccine uptake.
Covid certification has become an increasingly common response to the exceptional circumstances that we are all facing. The fundamental question is: how do we reduce the risk of transmission in the most proportionate and least restrictive way possible? Certification is a reasonable response to a very difficult discussion.
Yes—I am sorry, Presiding Officer.
I speak to businesses all the time about the measures, and they are supportive—[
Yes, businesses support the measures.
They do not want to close—[
.] I am sorry, but I will not take an intervention on that point. I have taken a few, and I need to get on—[
.] Let me answer the question. I have spoken to businesses that have had to close over previous months, and they do not want to go back to that situation, so they support the measures.
I will move on. The Scottish Government has made it clear that domestic vaccine certification will not be used to enable people to gain access to key services, or in settings where people have no choice but to attend—for example, healthcare, public transport, shops and education settings. The Scottish Government also does not consider it appropriate—[
.] I will not take an intervention—I have taken a few already.
The Scottish Government also does not consider it appropriate to introduce certification for the hospitality industry as a whole. As has been mentioned, it is envisaged that children and people with medical conditions would be exempt. The Scottish Government has never ruled out Covid certification. The First Minister said:
“we continue to consider very carefully the possible, albeit limited, use of Covid status certification for access to certain higher-risk venues in future.”—[
, 3 August 2021; c 4.]
Covid certification has already been introduced by several Governments of different political persuasions in countries across Europe. In August, the European Union digital Covid certificate was introduced in all 27 member states, as well as in Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein. Politicians from all parties agreed that it was a proportionate and necessary step to help to control the pandemic while opening up travel and social venues. There has been little or no ideological dispute, which may be a lesson for our opportunist Opposition.
Many countries have already gone much further than the Scottish Government is proposing to do. What the Scottish Government is proposing is also being proposed by the UK Government, which is looking to introduce certification for England at the end of this month. The scheme that the Tories are opposing in Scotland is the same one that their Conservative colleagues at Westminster will support—[
.] No, I will not take an intervention—I have taken a few, and I am conscious of the time.
With regard to Labour, Keir Starmer has said that he supports “passports plus testing” for mass events but not for “access to critical things”. That is exactly what the Scottish Government is proposing. The Scottish Government will continue to keep all requirements under review—that is the important part. Any changes to legal restrictions will, of course, be scrutinised by Parliament.
If both Opposition parties are concerned about how the scheme will operate, they should support the principle of Covid vaccination certificates and work with the Government on implementation. Only this afternoon, I had an email exchange with Hospitality Scotland, which said that it was not against the scheme in principle. It has concerns about how the scheme is to be implemented, and it is speaking to the Scottish Government about those, but it is not concerned about the scheme in principle.
I ask members to support the motion, to protect the health of Scotland and enable us to finally move out of the pandemic.
T he Scottish Government is rightly concerned about the current situation with Covid. As Jackie Baillie said, the daily infection rate is too high, and we clearly need to do something about it. However, I do not believe that introducing vaccine certification passports is the right thing to do, nor have the arguments that I have heard from the Government and its back-bench members today given me confidence. As we just heard, Paul McLennan was unable to answer Daniel Johnson when he rightly asked for the science behind the argument that is being made.
The views of the much-quoted Stephen Reicher, whom the First Minister quoted today, do not really support anyone’s argument. If members actually read all his tweets, they will see that he says many things. He says that passports are neither negative nor positive, as the issues are “complex”, and that passports will have “have a mixed effect”. I am mystified as to how that backs up the Government’s arguments.
The TRNSMT festival kicks off in Glasgow tomorrow, with 50,000 people attending over the weekend. Those who are attending will require proof of a negative lateral flow test to be recorded on the Government’s website, which is something that Scottish Government officials asked for. One of the issues that is causing confusion for concertgoers is that the Government’s message has switched from wanting a negative lateral flow test to having a vaccine passport for entry.
The sector has acted responsibly so far. Venues such as the Sub Club already ask for proof of a negative test for entry, and Michael Grieve, who is the owner of the Sub Club, wrote to me yesterday and confirmed that the venue is taking other mitigation measures to reduce transmission.
He and many others in the sector say that a more honest position for the Government would be to admit that its real policy is to coerce 18 to 29-year-olds to get vaccinated. The Government cannot even define what a nightclub is and the inconsistency in its approach to nightclubs versus large pubs is staggering. The sector is livid about the suggestion by public health figures in the press this week that ventilation in nightclubs is poor. Many venues in Glasgow—the city that I represent—heavily invested in ventilation before the pandemic and are insulted that there does not seem to be any understanding of that.
I asked representatives from the sector what they are willing to accept. I want to put on the record that the sector accepts that it has to do something, but vaccine passports would be incredibly difficult for hospitality venues and nightclubs to enforce—any proper engagement from the Government would highlight that. A certification scheme would be an added burden for nightclubs in particular, which already have to supervise long queues to ensure the safety of those attending in relation to drugs and weapons. That is the reality on the ground. Has any real consideration been given to nightclubs that already have to do that?
Threatening the sector with being closed down altogether does not help the discussion. That is the wrong tone for the Government to take to get the sector on board. It is unfair to place further demands on a sector that has had to endure more than its fair share of hardship due to Covid, particularly as it has been closed for more than 18 months, and because there is conflicting evidence on the benefits of a passport scheme. There is no hard evidence that it will make a difference.
I agree with Stephen Kerr that the measure will damage the sector, but there has been no offer of mitigation. I asked the First Minister yesterday, but she did not reply to me at all. The Night Time Industries Association has warned that nightlife businesses will lose more than a third of their trade if Covid passports are made mandatory. It points out that staff shortages will intensify, as many employees have indicated that they will quit the sector rather than accept compulsory vaccination.
The NTIA’s chief executive officer, Michael Kill, who I quoted yesterday, said:
“Contrary to popular belief, much of our core market and workforce will not accept being coerced into taking the vaccine.”
I ask again: why is the Government so convinced that this approach will have the desired effect? As we all know, we can still catch Covid and transmit it even if we have been vaccinated. The Government needs to be clear about why it has opted for that approach.
Many communities have low uptake of the vaccine. The real challenge for the Government is how to tackle that issue. The plan to impose vaccine passports only on nightclubs is flawed. Gillian Martin demonstrated that it is difficult to draw the distinction between nightclubs and large pubs. People would have to provide a passport to go to a nightclub, but a pub next door with a capacity of 400 and a DJ playing loud music would not require a vaccine passport for entry. It is a mystery why the Government does not see that there is an inconsistency there.
Promoters and sporting venues are already having to invent a refund policy due to the new rules, because people who are not vaccinated will not be able to attend. This questionable scheme to get the Government’s intended outcome will have a massive effect on the sector.
I hope that the Government accepts that we understand that it has to take action. We are not coming from an absolutely principled position on certification, although plenty people have written to me and to many other members to ask our parties to take such a position. However, the scheme is not practical, it will not have the desired effect, it is inconsistent and it will damage the night-time economy. The engagement on the development of the scheme has been woeful, so I hope that the Government will learn lessons and bring to the Parliament a measure that we can all get behind, because that is what we want to do.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this extremely important and sensitive debate.
Like, I imagine, all of us, I have been contacted by dozens of constituents regarding vaccine certificates over the past week, so I am aware of the genuine concerns that many hold about their introduction. The correspondence that I have received has represented all sections of society. In particular, my constituents have voiced concerns that the introduction of any form of Covid certification would instantly create a two-tier system in our society, and many feel that such a move would go against the long-standing efforts of this Government to fight any form of discrimination. I am proud that the SNP Government has always taken a zero tolerance approach to discrimination in our society so, in order to alleviate the concerns of my constituents, I would welcome assurances that the Scottish Government remains fully committed to fighting inequality and injustice across our society, especially in Covid times.
As the number of Covid cases remains stubbornly high—particularly in Glasgow and across the Lanarkshire area—I recognise that more has to be done to protect the most vulnerable as we look to further the reopening of our society and economy. The introduction of the Covid vaccine certification scheme will allow higher-risk venues to remain open and will help to ensure that there are no further lockdowns in the hospitality sector—a move that I welcome.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
I will use a real example: I have been double vaccinated. If I have my passport to prove that, it cuts down on my ability to pass Covid on and keeps others safe, so I do not mind having a passport in order to prove that I can keep others safe in large venues.
I have lost my place—[
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
Having heard from and met representatives from the hospitality sector, I understand that there has been a disproportionate impact on the sector. As Pauline McNeill pointed out, the sector is vital, especially in Glasgow Kelvin. I ask the Scottish Government to release details, as soon as practicably possible, on how any certification system that is implemented will impact on constituents of mine who work in the arts, entertainment and hospitality sectors, where certification might be necessary in order to attend events.
The transmissibility of the delta variant is much higher than that of the alpha variant, and the impact of the delta variant on younger people is even more severe. I therefore agree that there is a need to support the move towards vaccination certificates in the very limited number of high-risk settings that are identified in the motion, particularly as those are the places where our younger citizens, who have the lowest vaccine uptake rates, gather in larger numbers.
As we move into the autumn and winter months, when the huge and rising number of cases will only impact further on NHS services, it is imperative to be proactive and to ensure that as many of our young people as possible are fully vaccinated as soon as possible. I hope that the introduction of the vaccine certificate will encourage more of our young people to take up the vaccine, as has happened in European countries such as France, which saw a wave of young people being vaccinated after the roll-out of Covid vaccine certificates was announced.
I believe that the election result in May is a testament to the trust that the Scottish people have placed in the SNP Government to lead our country out of the pandemic. The Scottish public understand that the First Minister and her Government will do everything that they can to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all. That remains their top priority, with a particular emphasis on protecting people in higher-risk settings.
Ultimately, being fully vaccinated is the best defence against rising infection rates. It limits transmission and lowers the risk of the extremely serious consequences that contracting Covid can have. Vaccine certification gives us one more tool with which to reduce transmission and the risk of severe illness. Times continue to be challenging and there is no denying how difficult the decision on certification is, for members and the Government alike. I, for one, trust the Scottish Government to continue prioritising public safety, as it has done throughout the pandemic.
We all hoped that this decision would not need to be made, but the simple fact is that the pandemic continues to rage and action is needed once again. I want to set out and explain how the Greens have come to our position on the issue. [
.] I do not think that laughter from the Conservatives is helpful.
The rise in case numbers and plateauing vaccine rates mean that we are on the brink of reimposing restrictions that we thought we were at the end of, and many of our health boards are struggling to cope. Many of them have stopped non-urgent surgery and are dealing with rising numbers of presentations at accident and emergency and minor injuries services.
Many people have written to me about vaccine certificates, and I have taken into careful consideration what has been said when arriving at the position that we have reached. It is true that the vaccine is less effective at stopping transmission of the delta variant compared with the alpha variant. It does, however, reduce transmission and serious illness. I have scientific papers, if anyone wants to see them; I can send people links.
Nature, a study in Wisconsin between June and July showed that the viral loads of the delta variant in vaccinated and unvaccinated people were comparable, suggesting that there is very little reduction in transmission by those who are vaccinated.
No, thank you.
For the reduction in transmission to happen, however, we need more people to be vaccinated than there are currently. The lower uptake numbers of the vaccine in lower age groups have been widely reported and we must continue to encourage young people to take up the vaccine. I hope that—[
] I have a lot to get through and the Greens have only one speech. I am genuinely sorry.
We need to continue to encourage young people to take up the vaccine, and I hope that, alongside other measures, certification will be part of that, as has happened elsewhere. I would appreciate it if the cabinet secretary would tell us in closing whether there have been any early signs of an impact on vaccine uptake since certification was announced.
Evidence that was published in
The Lancet on 1 September by Antonelli et al said:
“We found that the odds of having symptoms for 28 days or more after post-vaccination infection were approximately halved by having two vaccine doses. This result suggests that the risk of long COVID is reduced in individuals who have received double vaccination, when additionally considering the already documented reduced risk of infection overall.”
I hope that the Scottish Government will look into that further and commission research on it in a Scottish setting.
For some young people, the advice will seem contradictory to the narrative throughout the pandemic. We have told young people for 18 months that they are at less risk of becoming seriously ill. That does not mean, however, that there is no possibility that they will become ill, and there are now more people under 40 than in any other age category in hospital. Long Covid has also always been, and will continue to be, a real danger for anyone who catches the virus.
At the start of the pandemic, young people were asked to do the right thing, abide by lockdown measures and keep everyone safe, which meant that they often missed out on formative experiences, such as graduation, freshers week and entering the workforce. We greatly appreciate those sacrifices, and we now have to ask them again to do something so that they do not miss anything.
I really need to get through stuff.
We ask young people to get their vaccinations not just to protect them, but to protect everyone around them.
Some people have said that a vaccine certification scheme might increase vaccine hesitancy, but that does not appear to have happened in comparable countries that have introduced similar schemes. I implore health boards and the Government to continue to reach out to those who have expressed hesitancy to give them the information that they need on the vaccine.
Since the plans were announced last week, I and my colleagues in the Green group have pushed strongly to ensure that the scheme is time limited and targeted, in order to increase the vaccination rate and, as a result, decrease the rate of transmission. I am pleased that, in addition to a review every three weeks, a provisional end date for the scheme is set for the end of February.
I have also pushed to ensure that the scheme will not adversely impact disabled people and other marginalised groups. I am pleased that paper certificates will be readily available, that the medical data will be limited and that individuals who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons will be exempt. Nevertheless, I am acutely aware that such an adverse impact remains a risk of the policy, and I will keep a close eye on the matter.
I am also aware of the impact that the scheme could have on students and others who have been vaccinated in countries where it might be difficult to obtain proof of vaccination. We are continuing to work with the Government on that issue, and I am encouraged that everyone who has taken part in a vaccine trial will automatically get the certificate.
I understand the moral and ethical concerns that other members have raised. I respect their point of view, which is one that the Greens previously shared when furlough was still in place and some age groups had not yet had access to vaccinations. If we were considering the health impacts of Covid, re-imposing wider restrictions would probably be the obvious initial step. However, with furlough ending shortly, we no longer have that choice. The consequences of shutting industries without furlough would lead to job losses and the closure of businesses on a scale far beyond what we have already seen. We would be having an entirely different discussion today if we had the ability to extend furlough and provide the needed financial support to reintroduce restrictions. We are in the realm of the least-worst option.
No. I am in my final minute.
Conservative colleagues have said that they will vote against the scheme this evening, but it is important that they speak to colleagues at Westminster—I implore them to do so—and lobby for furlough to be extended. It is hypocritical to vote against health protection measures here without any making attempt to resolve the issues that hamstring other interventions.
As I said, we did not want the decision to be on the table for many reasons, which I have laid out. However, we will not shy away from taking the decisions that are in the best interests of this country. We will continue to work with the Government to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected and that the scheme is not in place for a day longer than it needs to be, and to minimise the restrictions on our civil liberties that the pandemic has sadly made necessary.
Vaccine passports are a contentious issue that has raised a substantial amount of correspondence from individuals and businesses across North East Scotland. People are expressing a huge amount of anxiety about the pace of, and the lack of consultation on, the scheme, the form that the passports will take and the impact that they will have on businesses and those who attend events.
The SNP-Green Government’s screeching U-turn has led to confusion, chaos and concern for many of my constituents, born out of a deep distrust of the devolved Government and its ability to deliver projects. We have already seen the fiasco over the new information technology system for the farming sector and the promising of apps that were never delivered. Businesses and citizens simply do not trust the devolved Government to implement a system that works for them and their customers, particularly when they have not been consulted on that sudden U-turn.
A year ago, the Conservatives called for a business panel to be established to be a sounding board for the Government on Covid measures. That never happened and I am positive that, on reflection, the minister is now wishing that he had listened to the Conservatives and implemented such a business panel, so that we could have heard what businesses need instead of working through what looks like a dog’s dinner of a policy without the knowledge of business on the ground.
This devolved Government has a habit of talking down to business and telling it what is best rather than listening to understand its needs and requirements. In my discussion with business leaders, this is what I have been told. I have been contacted by the chairman of a football club, who said:
“clubs with over 10,000 attending are going to be severely challenged financially. We have already had a huge number of season ticket holders state that if we force them to get vaccinated, they want their money back. We have done everything not to make anyone redundant at the club. Our initial estimate is that this will cost us at least £1.5 million in lost income.”
Clubs have gone through all the pre-season planning, jumped through all the hoops, put in place Covid measures and adhered to all the guidelines, but with this ill-thought-out policy the Government is putting all of that in jeopardy.
We heard earlier from Douglas Ross that getting test and protect working would be more effective.
When I read the proposals—if we can call them proposals—I can understand the concerns that football clubs have. The paper says that staff at a venue can download a free QR code verifier. Has anyone from the Government ever been to a football match? There is not one orderly queue for 50,000 people; there are hundreds of turnstiles, most of which are unmanned. There is not a guy at each turnstile with an app on a phone.
A couple of days after the regulations are due to come into force, four matches will be affected. The proposal will be a hammer blow to those clubs that have already suffered hugely during the past 18 months—[
If the Government does force this measure through today, I urge it to work closely with those clubs and not hang them out to dry.
The Night Time Industries Association has also written to MSPs and put forward some helpful suggestions on how the impact of the policy could be mitigated. It asks the Government to pause and reflect on where the numbers are going. As the First Minister suggested yesterday, the case numbers might have peaked and are now starting to fall again, so surely it is premature to bring the policy in quickly and without the necessary infrastructure in place.
The NTIA also raised with me another issue that is also touched on in the proposal, and that is the definition of a nightclub. The Government does not have a definition for them yet, so I suspect that many pubs will be in for a big nasty surprise.
There seems to be a lot of talk about a definition. I have had a wee bit of time to look it up, and the definition of a nightclub is that it is a noun; it is an entertainment venue that is open from the evening until early morning, having facilities such as a bar and a disco, or other entertainment. Thank you.
I thank the member for that intervention, but she obviously has not read the notes that were released earlier today, which say that there is no definition of a nightclub and that it is still being worked on. How we can vote on the proposals when that definition is not in place is a strange one on me.
The proposals that the Government has presented to us have more holes than a Swiss cheese. They are meant for nightclubs, but we cannot define a nightclub. The medical exemption process is still being developed. Under-18s will be exempt, but that might be changed to under-16s, and young people going to a concert will now have to prove that they are under 18 and if they do not have a driving licence or a passport, I am not sure how they will do that.
We have no idea on costs to businesses. Guidance on “reasonable measures” will come later. We are being asked to approve so many unknowns today!
I am also extremely concerned by recent reports that events organisers are abstaining from coming to Scotland and moving existing events to England as the measures proposed by the devolved Government will prove too costly and too difficult for them to operate in Scotland.
The events industry in Scotland is worth around £1.5 billion a year. If that income were to be lost or substantially reduced, that would have a major economic impact on many regions, including the north-east. Of course, we have a major event coming to Scotland in just seven weeks’ time: the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26. We have no idea how that conference will be impacted by what is proposed today; we will just have to cross our fingers and hope for the best.
There is one final concern that I want to highlight, which is to do with the timing of the introduction of the proposed scheme. If its introduction forces someone to get vaccinated, the soonest they will be allowed into a venue will be 10 weeks after their first injection. If they got their first jab today, it would be 18 November before they were able to go to a football match or a concert, which does not seem fair.
This is an ill-thought-out policy from the coalition of chaos. The screeching U-turn by the SNP-Green devolved Government is a sight to behold. Where is the once-principled view of Patrick Harvie, who was so ardently against the policy but has now fallen into line just to protect his ministerial salary? There has been no planning, no discussion and no consultation. No thought has been given to the policy; it has been written on the back of an envelope without the information technology systems to support its being in place. Once again, the people and businesses of Scotland will be left to suffer and to try to cope as best they can.
It is a great privilege to speak in a debate on a matter of such huge significance. I say at the outset that I intend to vote for the Government’s motion, but before I outline my reasons for that decision, I want to take some time to express concerns that I have—which I think that members across the chamber have—about the vaccination certification scheme and to make sure that the voices of the many constituents who have been in touch are heard.
My first concern, as a member of the Parliament and of the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, comes from a human rights perspective. Members will be aware that the Scottish Human Rights Commission’s briefing for the debate said that the Government should ensure that two tests are met in order for vaccine passports to comply with human rights. The Government should provide evidence that the measure is necessary to achieve a pressing social aim, and that it is proportionate, in that it goes no further than is necessary to achieve that aim. I feel that the Deputy First Minister’s opening speech demonstrated that, for now, those tests have been met by keeping certification only for high-risk events—[
.] I will not take an intervention just now. I might do so in a bit.
The scheme will also be kept under regular review and scrutiny. I think that those conditions are very important in allowing many of us to vote for the introduction of vaccine certification.
As other members have said—this might be where Mr Johnson was going—the night-time industry has raised significant points, which were backed up by my constituent who runs a number of nightclubs in my constituency and across Lanarkshire. Today, he spoke to me as someone who has been very supportive of measures to restrict Covid. He is not opposed to the measures that we are discussing, but he reiterated questions that other members—mainly Opposition members—have asked about what constitutes a nightclub or a late bar. I think that those are legitimate questions. John Mason’s point was a good one—we will need to flesh out some of that.
My constituent also raised concerns about how the scheme will be enforced, how fraud can be prevented and so on, which other members have covered. He went on to tell me—this might be the point that Douglas Ross was making to the cabinet secretary, but I think that he made it in the wrong way—that his nightclubs have been open since 13 August and have had 6,780 people through their doors but have had no pings from the test and protect system and no staff members unwell. He put that down to having robust systems in place, including everyone being signed into test and protect, temperature checks being carried out and having an innovative system that pumps—I had better get this right—1 cubic metre of fresh air per second and filters out the same amount of dirty air. I wonder whether the Government would consider coming to visit that example of good practice. I always welcome visits to my constituency. I know that my constituent has had good practice throughout the pandemic, as well as contact with the Government. [
Will I get the time back if I take the intervention, Presiding Officer? I have a lot to get through.
The member talks about proportionality. I am glad that he has not resorted to Google, as some other members have done, in an effort to make up definitions as they go along. Part of the proportionality issue is the need to ensure that all other means have been exhausted before such a scheme is brought in. Is it not right that we get test and protect working properly before we move into such a scenario? Is that not a test of proportionality?
I have already covered that. The need for proportionality has been met by what the Deputy First Minister has said. I think that members from all parties would agree that the fact that the measure has a provisional end date and that there will be a three-weekly review brings in proportionality.
I am sorry, Mr Ross, but I would like to make some progress.
I have mentioned one constituent. I thank around 50 other Coatbridge and Chryston constituents who got in touch with me and who will each receive a response from me. I understand the arguments about human rights and individual choice that they have put to me. I also understand that many of them have been double vaccinated but are worried about the possible trajectory of such a move and where it might lead even after the pandemic has subsided. I will continue being their voice in Parliament. There is no indication that this will be anything other than a short-term measure.
] I will not give way just now.
I also understand the concerns of some specific groups. My partner and I experienced that when she was pregnant. There was conflicting advice and it was not easy to make choices about vaccination.
I will talk about why I support the motion. We are in the middle of a global pandemic. I do not know about anyone else, but I do not want to go back into lockdown and restrictions. If the measure adds value to the others that we have, I am for it.
Last week, I attended an NHS Lanarkshire briefing—
] I will not take an intervention just now. I have already taken one intervention.
We were told that two thirds of those currently in hospital with Covid-19 are unvaccinated and that a significant proportion of the remaining one third of hospital patients have had only one jab. Think about the fact that two thirds are unvaccinated. If one of the primary aims of the measure is to increase vaccination among groups who have not already had it, we have a duty to try that. That is why I cannot understand why Opposition members are so against this. They are not even arguing to and fro like SNP members; they are totally against it. Are those guys going to the same briefings as me? The NHS Lanarkshire briefing could not have been clearer.
There is also a simple trust issue. I am a member of the Parliament and of the governing party, but first and foremost I am a father, son, partner, friend and citizen of Scotland. The Government has earned our trust during the pandemic, which was demonstrated by the recent election. If the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, the Government and its advisers think that this is a good idea and that it will help, we should support it. I know that the cabinet secretary will be the first to come here and tell us if the measure is not working and that he will pull it.
The irony will not be lost on anyone that Douglas Ross and even Anas Sarwar think that this is a good enough measure for tackling the virus in England but not here, in Scotland. Is that really what they are saying? Perhaps it is not—perhaps I am misquoting them—but it feels that way to me. The measure has a built-in three-weekly review; there is nothing to lose. They are seeing an opportune moment to play party politics.
I am not taking any more interventions—I have already taken one.
I am happy to support the motion. I have raised my own concerns and those of constituents, and I look forward to updates on the success—or otherwise—of these measures in tackling the pandemic.
I will first make clear my support, and that of my party, for vaccination. Without the successful procurement of the vaccine across the four nations and the massive uptake of vaccination by the public, we would not be in a position to see the opening up of our economy and society.
I have spent much of the past five days researching the issue, with the intention of basing my decision on the evidence given and the wide range of views and concerns being expressed about what is proposed. The fact that the proposals come to us as emergency legislation means that there is not the level of scrutiny that would be normal for such serious measures. I note that the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee took advice on the introduction of Covid status certification, and that committee published a report on 10 June this year. Basically, it found that the UK Government had not presented a scientific or public health case for introducing a Covid status certification system. It also made the point that such a significant measure should be introduced through primary legislation.
My view is that, today, the Scottish Government has not brought forward a convincing scientific case for introducing a certification system that will target certain venues and gatherings, nor has it provided evidence that the specific areas that are being targeted are causing major outbreaks in the spread of the virus. That is important, because we must surely have that knowledge in order to try to get back on top of driving the R number down.
From my knowledge of people getting Covid, the greatest area of spread seems to be schools. I worry that the Government seems a bit heartless when it comes to knowing what to do while schools are struggling to manage the situation that they find themselves in. From what I can see, the main purpose of introducing the measures is to use the stick approach to increase uptake among younger people.
“The primary purpose of the policy proposal that the First Minister set out ... is to strengthen resistance to the virus by maximising compliance with the measures that we know will have the greatest impact in stemming the prevalence of serious illness as a consequence of people contracting it.”—[
Official Report, COVID-19 Recovery Committee
, 2 September 2021; c 6.]
That statement raises a number of questions, the first of which is whether the proposal will improve vaccine uptake compliance among younger people. Where has the evidence been given to show that that will be the case? Initial research on the question raises concerns that the proposal may have the opposite effect and entrench vaccine hesitancy, particularly in groups that need to be reached.
The Government will win the vote today and proceed with the proposal, but I ask it to produce much more detail on what it is doing to focus specifically on those geographical areas and groups, such as the younger population, where there is low take-up of vaccination. I note from watching the TV news on the past few nights that the numbers of young people who are going for vaccination has been on the increase in many areas. I believe that taking those steps is far more important to encourage uptake among people who, for whatever reason, have concerns and fears about getting the vaccine.
I thank the member for giving way during what is, I think, a very considered contribution. He said that he notes anecdotally that numbers have increased in the past few days. Does he think that that might be to do with the fact that we have announced the certification scheme and our intention is to implement it?
I also note that a lot of the evidence suggests that trying to force people to get the vaccine can have the opposite effect, so I am less than convinced of that. I believe that we need to focus measures on how we reach those we might call hard to reach.
The Scottish Human Rights Commission makes the point that take-up of Covid-19 vaccines is lower among some groups, including people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, people from certain ethnic minority groups, refugees and people seeking asylum.
We also have to do more to challenge the level of misinformation from anti-vaccination groups, which is rife and increasing. The more misinformation goes unchallenged, the more dangerous it becomes. If the Government brings forward measures and demonstrates that they will increase the uptake of vaccination, I will certainly support those measures, but it needs to be able to produce the evidence that sits behind them.
On compliance, I note that disregard for mask wearing in shops, on public transport and in other areas where it is required by law is, sadly, increasing at a worrying rate. What steps is the Government taking to support retailers, for example, to enforce the law on face coverings? Why is it being left to shop workers to ask the questions and put themselves at risk? To use emergency legislation to bring in new laws while ignoring the laws that we have in place to protect people is not right, and we need to address that.
Likewise, we have all seen the pictures of overcrowding on trains, which is a direct responsibility of this Government. It is one thing to tell others what to do—surely we need to get our act right alongside that.
I am not sure that the proposed measures will deliver the intended result, and I want the Government to enforce the laws that are already in place to keep people safe.
A concern that has been raised with me is that people who have had one vaccine in one country and one in another cannot get their vaccine passport. I have asked NHS National Services Scotland about that, and it said that it is not yet possible to bring together vaccination data from different countries. I would be grateful if the Government could give an indication of when it expects to resolve that issue.
Disabled people, carers and other seldom-heard groups have been strong in their concern over the lack of consultation with them on the Scottish Government’s Covid response, and they have consistently asked that they be involved in all aspects of it. It is crucial that any introduction of a vaccine passport scheme is considered and planned to ensure that it does not perpetuate or exacerbate existing inequalities. Has the Government carried out a detailed and robust equality impact assessment and human rights impact assessment on vaccine passports? If so, when will it publish them? If not, could the Deputy First Minister or cabinet secretary explain why not?
If the Parliament votes for vaccine passports, how will the Government involve disabled people, people living with long-term conditions, unpaid carers and other seldom-heard groups in designing how the passports work and how they are rolled out? I would be grateful if the cabinet secretary could set that out in his closing remarks.
Just six weeks ago, Patrick Harvie wrote in my favourite authoritative journal,
. He railed against Boris Johnson’s plans for vaccine passports and said that
“threats and coercion will backfire”,
that the plans could destroy public trust,
“deepen discrimination ... deepen inequality” and allow
“anti-vaxxers ... to spread misinformation”.
To top it off, Mr Harvie said that Boris Johnson just “doesn’t care.”
Not just now.
I know that Mr Harvie was nuanced and understated in that article, but forensic analysis will glean that, on balance, he was not in favour of vaccine passports.
Fast forward six weeks and Mr Harvie has changed his view. I am not sure whether he now thinks that use of threats and coercion to get people vaccinated is acceptable. I am not sure whether he is bothered about public trust, inequality or discrimination any more.
I am not sure that Willie Rennie took that last comment any more seriously than I did. He is quoting my article every bit as selectively as several members have quoted Stephen Reicher’s tweets from this morning. Can he tell the chamber what the daily case rate of Covid transmission was when I wrote that article?
It is amazing how compliant Mr Harvie has become after just a few weeks in office. Six weeks ago, he was against coercion. Now he has joined the SNP and he is in favour of coercion. I have a little bit of advice for Mr Harvie. Some may say that I have a little bit of experience of this. If Mr Harvie does not want to get pushed around for the next five years by his new coalition partners, he needs to stand up now for what he believes, and there is no better opportunity to do that than today. His vote will make the difference in this debate. I say, “Stand up for what you believe, Mr Harvie.”
My opposition to Covid ID cards was first expressed last autumn, when I asked the First Minister about them in this very chamber. She denied that she had any plans to introduce them. I raised the issue again in the spring, and several times in the election campaign. I banged my desk in approval when Patrick Harvie challenged the First Minister about Covid ID cards.
My opposition is simple: as a Liberal, I am always suspicious of Governments that want to accrue for themselves more powers—no matter how apparently innocuous they are—over the freedom of the individual. It is why I opposed the SNP Government’s plans to introduce a super ID database—the precursor to an ID card in this country. It is why I was opposed to the Labour Government’s ID cards, which, I say to Mr Harvie, we scrapped when we got into power. It is a major shift in the power balance between the state and the individual to introduce vaccine ID cards in this country. It would require people to be treated in order to get access to normal services. That is not something that I am prepared to accept. We need to be very careful whenever we consider shifts in the power of the state. Such shifts should not be rushed.
We received the flimsy six-page note from the Government this morning. A few hours are insufficient time to consider the issue. Parliament should not be bounced by the Government, and the issue deserves more than a couple of thousand words of waffle. The note asserts this: Covid ID cards will work. That is about the length of the argument. There is no guidance, no regulations and no agreement with other countries—not even our neighbours in the rest of the UK. The QR code has not been widely tested. The technology has not been shared with venues and they have had no training. All of this is supposed to be in place in 21 days’ time—three weeks.
The IT system cannot cope with the current demand for vaccine passports for foreign travel, so I cannot see how it will cope with a massive increase in demand. I am also unclear as to what the Government thinks vaccine passports will fix. Having the vaccine does not stop people from contracting or spreading the virus, although it does limit it. The danger is—this is Professor Reicher’s argument—that people at big events will ignore all the protections, as if they have had the all-clear from a Government-endorsed ID card. That is an argument that Government ministers have been particularly enthusiastic about over the past 18 months.
I am afraid that the Government has lost its head. It has been captured by the “Something must be done” advocates. We have worked together through the pandemic. I have praised the First Minister for her leadership. We have asked many people to make many great sacrifices, and many have made the ultimate sacrifice. However, we have always sought to unite society to beat the virus together. I fear that the Government is abandoning that approach today. It is overreaching; it is garnering more powers for itself against the individual, and it is doing it with such great haste.
I urge the Government to think again.
Let me begin with some points that I think we can all agree on. As Alex Rowley said, we all want vaccination rates to increase. As Gillian Martin said, we want to find safe ways of doing the things that we did before the pandemic. As the Deputy First Minister said, we have to ensure that we suppress the virus and consider what will work.
However, we have to question the approach that the Government has taken. We have to question why it has created the imperative now. We have to question the process by which the Government has brought that imperative about and the fundamental rationale that lies behind the measures that it has put before us in the motion this afternoon.
Why now? Last December, we knew that the roll-out would conclude roughly at the end of this summer. At that point, when we knew the timeline, the questions were always going to come up whether we would need to enforce vaccination and whether we would ask people to prove that they had been vaccinated.
Earlier this year, discussion of vaccine passports took place throughout the world. In July, we knew that Scotland was a global hotspot for the virus. Throughout, there has been the opportunity to discuss and explore the possibility of a vaccine passport, to look at the practicalities and to look at what would happen.
Quite simply, it is not good enough for the First Minister to say that she did not reject the idea, and to claim that her Government was developing it, because it was not. If ministers had wanted to develop the idea, they should have been examining it in detail and preparing it. Even the UK Government did a consultation, back in March.
This is a false imperative. As Willie Rennie said, the Government has been captured by the idea that “Something must be done: this is apparently ‘something’, therefore we must do it.” That is the sum total of the Government’s argument, this evening.
I have listened very carefully to the concerns that have been raised. However, two weeks ago, I attended an NHS briefing in Lanarkshire. Members of the Labour Party were there, but, to the best of my knowledge, not a single Tory MSP or MP was there, yet they are going to oppose the measure this evening.
My constituents cannot get personal care unless it is an emergency, and we cannot get operations in Lanarkshire. Positive case rates are going up, and the briefing from the NHS officials was absolutely clear that we have to do something about vaccination uptake in order to protect our health service. For that reason, I will vote for the proposal. Does Daniel Johnson understand how hard it is for my constituents at the moment?
I really do understand Clare Adamson’s motivation, and I agree that we have to listen and go to briefings. However, ultimately, it is a question of whether the measure will do what she is suggesting. I think that we have to question that.
One of the fundamental issues here—I was going to come on to this later—is the proposition that vaccination reduces transmission, because the Government is conflating two fundamental elements of vaccine efficacy. There is the efficacy of the vaccine in terms of ensuring that people do not get ill and go to hospital. The evidence on that is clear: the vaccine does reduce it.
However, the evidence of the vaccine’s ability to reduce transmission is far from clear. That is why the WHO stated back in February that it did not recommend vaccine passports as a measure to reduce transmission, and it is why, in July, it reiterated that the evidence was not clear. It is why the
New England Journal of Medicine published an article just the other day stating that, on transmission, it is not clear that passports can be used as a measure.
We also have to look at the legislative process that the Government is taking in regard to the measure. There has been derision and amusement regarding definitions of nightclubs, but Douglas Ross is absolutely right to raise that, because when we legislate and introduce measures, definitions matter. If we fail to accurately define the scope of a measure, we will get things wrong.
That is not the only issue with what is being proposed today. We have to be steered by international organisations and scientific advice. The WHO has set out the parameters by which Governments should approach vaccine passports. As well as scope, it says that there should be detailed cost benefit analysis, yet the proposal from the Government has none. It says that there should be detailed examination of digital barriers and discrimination, and it suggests that there should be a full equality impact assessment. I wanted to ask Fulton MacGregor whether he thinks that the Government should undertake a full equality impact assessment before it introduces the measure, because there has been none.
The WHO also says that Governments should take all necessary measures to protect participants in terms of continuity of care and particular focus being placed on data relating to individuals, but there is scant detail of how such details will be protected in the Government’s measure.
We need to look at the very real concerns that have been raised by the Liberal Democrats—by Alex Cole-Hamilton—and others.
We have to look at the implications of what we are introducing. Vaccination passports are medical ID cards by the back door. I do not entirely share the concerns of the Liberal Democrats about identity cards, but I am clear about the fact that we should not introduce ID cards by the back door. We must not introduce medical photographic ID for one purpose, only for that to result in its being used for another one. That is a real danger of the measure—[
.] I cannot take an intervention, as I have to wind up.
Ultimately, the Government’s position can be summed up as having no detail, having had no consultation and having no evidence—the measure should have no confidence from the Scottish Parliament.
Several members in today’s debate have referred to correspondence from constituents. I am sure that we have all had a great volume of correspondence from many constituents who are hostile in principle to the notion of Covid vaccination passports. That position was well articulated in the debate by representatives of the Liberal Democrats. However, most of us in the Parliament are probably not in that position and do not take a particularly principled stance on the issue. We wrestle with conflicting arguments. There are arguments about civil liberties and efficacy, which we have to weigh against the arguments about the benefits to public health that we have heard several members refer to today. We are trying to find a way forward on the basis of the evidence as to what works.
A few weeks ago in a radio interview, I was asked about the use of vaccine passports. At that time—when restrictions were still in place—my view was that it was a reasonable trade-off if we were to allow large events to start to take place but to require those attending to produce either proof of vaccination status or proof of a negative test. Unlike some other members, I have not changed my view. When the announcement was made in the chamber last week on the introduction of vaccination passports, I asked the First Minister whether negative tests would be accepted as an alternative to certification, but the answer was no.
I accept Mr Fraser’s very nuanced position and respect the fact that it might be different from mine. However, does he recognise that the hospitality sector and the events industry have said that their preference is for lateral flow certification, so that people can evidence their health on that particular day, which is far safer than the Government’s vaccine passport plan?
That is a fair point from Mr Cole-Hamilton and I am in agreement with it.
Certification of vaccine status is not something new or unusual. Some years ago, I travelled to Tanzania and had to provide proof of yellow fever vaccination. Many travel companies require proof of vaccination status and other countries have already implemented certification schemes. However, there is still widespread public concern about what is being proposed by the Scottish Government. At this stage, I do not believe that the Scottish Government has made a case that convinces us of the need for these measures at this time.
At last week’s meeting of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, I asked John Swinney what the purpose of the policy was. Was it about preventing the further spread of infection given that we know that double vaccination provides only limited protection against the delta variant, or was it about pushing unvaccinated groups, such as the young, to get vaccinated? I did not get a direct answer to that question.
Labour’s Alex Rowley asked that the evidence behind the decision be shared with the committee and the wider Parliament. Mr Swinney undertook to provide that evidence. One week later and I have seen no further information from the Scottish Government to justify the policy or show the evidence behind it. We are simply in the dark. All we have seen today is this flimsy document, which contains just 2,000 words. I have quoted it already, but I will do so again. It says that the Scottish Government will
“continue to gather evidence from around the world on certification schemes ... We will also publish a full assessment of the evidence for certification”.
Yet, we are being asked today—in a matter of minutes—to vote to approve the scheme for which the evidence has not been presented. I am sure that Mr Swinney himself understands what an unreasonable ask of the Parliament that is. [
.] Let me make a further point before giving way.
That takes us back to the important issue of parliamentary scrutiny. This week, the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee wrote to the Scottish Government to ask that there be an opportunity to scrutinise the detailed regulations that we are expecting before they are implemented, because there are many unanswered questions about the detail, which we have heard in the debate. This morning, the COVID-19 Recovery Committee endorsed that call. I have just seen a response from the Minister for Parliamentary Business to that very reasonable request. To say that it is disappointing would be an understatement. According to him, regulations will be introduced and imposed without debate, scrutiny or vote in committee. I will quote directly from that letter. He said:
“The Debate in the Chamber today, and—if circumstances permit—consideration by the Covid-19 Committee will ensure that there is some Parliamentary scrutiny of the proposals before any regulations come into force.”
That is it. The entirety of scrutiny of a complex and sensitive issue is this two-hour debate this afternoon. That is not parliamentary democracy in action.
If the Parliament votes yes in a few minutes’ time, as I expect it will, that will be it. Vaccine passports will come in, the Scottish Government will have sole and unfettered control over the detail of what will be new law, and Parliament will consider that only after it has been introduced and it is the law of the land. That is a shameful way for the Government to treat the Parliament.
There is much more that I could say about the impact on civil liberties. We have had representations from groups such as the Health and Social Care Alliance Scotland that talk about the impact on human rights, particularly for those who are disabled and people who live with long-term conditions. They are concerned that inequalities could be exacerbated. The Scottish Government says that those with medical conditions that do not permit vaccination would be exempt from needing to provide certification, but it appears that that would not apply to those with a religious objection to vaccination, for example. I have had correspondence from a constituent in that category. No exemption is provided for them.
We know that the business community has widespread concerns about the use of vaccination passports. The document that we have seen today says that the costs will be met by businesses themselves, but we have no idea what those costs will be. There has been no impact assessment and no financial memorandum to accompany the measure. Again, we are being asked to vote for something whose impact we are in the dark about.
We have already seen the SNP U-turn on this issue. Only a few weeks ago, John Swinney and Humza Yousaf were saying that this was not the right way to go. Even if it is troubling for them to have changed their position, it is even more embarrassing for the other part of this Government coalition of chaos. As recently as the end of July, Patrick Harvie was railing against Covid vaccination passports but, here today, he and his colleagues are supporting the Government in voting them through, despite all the concerns that we have heard. Mr Harvie and his colleagues are bought and sold for the price of two ministerial salaries, and they should be ashamed of themselves for letting down their party members and voters.
Today, the Scottish Conservatives will vote against the Scottish Government’s proposals. The Scottish Government has simply not made the case, and there are too many unanswered questions. I am afraid that, as of today, the case for vaccine passports has not yet been made.
It is fair to say that it has been a mixed debate. Some contributions have been more heat than light, but I must acknowledge that there have been other contributions from our own back benchers and many Opposition members in which very important and pertinent questions have been asked. Many have reflected on the numerous emails that we have all received in our inboxes and questions from members of the public. I will attempt to answer as many of those as I possibly can.
It was right for the Deputy First Minister to start—I know that Daniel Johnson did this in his contribution, too—by reminding us of what we agree on and why we are here. Maybe in the humdrum of political debate, we can sometimes forget just how difficult, serious and significant the challenge that we face as a nation is. All of us have a duty as parliamentarians to give any proposal or initiative that is brought forward by the Government or, indeed, others full consideration, given the challenge that is in front of us. Weekly cases are increasing, from above 26,000 to more than 44,000, the number of people in hospital with Covid has increased from 391 to 883, and the number of people in our intensive care units has almost doubled, from 44 to 82.
Today alone, 12 people have died. Twelve families have been devastated and are grieving because of their loss through Covid. I know somebody in his mid-30s—I think that Anas Sarwar probably knows the individual, too—who passed away with Covid-19 this week. That is a reminder that we are here to find solutions. It does not mean that we all have to agree—we will not always agree, and today is a case in point—but we are here because we want to work our way through what is the most challenging set of circumstances that, I suspect, any Government will ever have to deal with, certainly for many years to come.
So, we must do something. That does not mean just doing anything, however—and I will come back to that point. Some people in the Opposition have said that we have moved too quickly. I would say to the Opposition that we have a variant—the delta variant this time—that moves incredibly quickly, and it is so important that we, too, move at pace so that the virus does not outrun us.
Does that not make the point that the Deputy First Minister should not be going on the radio, giving categorical positions and rubbishing ideas that have come forward in other parts of the UK, and then going away and doing no work, and then coming back at the last minute with a poorly prepared proposal?
Unsurprisingly, I do not agree with the member’s characterisation. In fact, neither the Deputy First Minister nor I, nor the First Minister, have ever ruled out a Covid certification scheme. We have put on record where our concerns are. We have managed to get a workaround for some of those concerns. For example, I was always concerned about people who may be digitally excluded—and Douglas Lumsden and a couple of other members made that point—but we found a workaround for that whereby people can receive a paper copy, which takes three to four days, on average, to arrive. This is not a step that the Government has taken lightly. However, in the light of the case numbers—[
.] If the member lets me make a little bit of progress, I promise that I will take more interventions.
Daniel Johnson, Jackie Baillie and a number of other members asked for the clinical advice. There are a number of studies, and Gillian Mackay said that she could send them on to other members. I am equally happy to do that, too. A recent publication from the UK study on real-time assessment of community transmission, REACT-1, reports:
“the researchers estimate that fully vaccinated people in this testing round had between around 50% to 60% reduced risk of infection, including asymptomatic infection, compared to unvaccinated people.”
I think this is the really significant point:
“In addition, double vaccinated people were less likely than unvaccinated people to test positive after coming into contact with someone who had COVID”.
Another study shows that, although double-vaccinated people and unvaccinated people may have similar viral loads, those viral loads stayed in the body for a shorter period of time in the former, so they are less likely to transmit the virus.
More importantly, why were those studies not included in the Government paper that was published? Right now, the paper has nothing, which is why we have been googling for evidence during the debate.
There is the evidence in the studies that I read, and at paragraph
6 our paper says:
“Research evidence indicates that being vaccinated reduces the risk that a person will become infected with the virus, and likely further reduces their risk of transmitting coronavirus.”
If the member’s criticism of the Government is that paragraph 6 should have had an appendix to it, with all the studies that I have mentioned, then I will take that on board, and I will be happy to send out some of the detail. [
.] No, I will make some more progress, particularly on the international evidence.
I have often heard some members say that we should just stick to talking about Scotland but, in a global pandemic, we want to look across the world to where there is best practice. International evidence is convincing. Certification schemes exist in France, Austria, Germany, Israel, Italy, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway—and one will be introduced in England, too. In most of the countries, the use of a certification scheme is far broader than the very limited scope that we are suggesting. In his speech, Alex Cole-Hamilton suggested that the scheme is illiberal. Is he really suggesting that France, Germany and Italy are illiberal—that Belgium, where the liberal party is part of the ruling coalition, is illiberal? That is not a position that I can agree with.
Of course, we do not have a written constitution—that is the obvious point. What I am saying is that those countries are not illiberal, and a certification scheme is becoming the European norm, although it may not quite be the global norm.
A number of members asked about nightclubs. I go back to those countries that I have just mentioned. Nightclubs are included in our scheme because we believe, based on the clinical advice that we have received, that they are high-risk settings. However, it is not just us—they are included in the schemes in Austria, Denmark, France, Israel and some regions of Germany, and they will be included in other countries’ schemes, too.
The cabinet secretary has mentioned studies and various other things that he is promising to publish. On the subject that the cabinet secretary is now addressing, the Deputy First Minister said that there had been an assessment of the economic impact of such measures on the night-time economy, for example. Will the cabinet secretary undertake to see to it that that information is also released into the public domain, so that we can scrutinise it?
When we lay the regulations, we will, of course, follow that with an equality impact assessment and a business and regulatory impact assessment, and those will be published for the committee to scrutinise. There has also been engagement with business—I can give members the dates of that.
I want to touch on another issue, because I am rapidly running out of time. Gillian Mackay, Alex Rowley and a number of other members asked about this. The primary aim of our certification scheme is to try to reduce the risk of transmission—not to eliminate it; a number of members have made that point—in what we consider, from a clinical point of view, to be high-risk settings. However, one of the scheme’s other primary priorities is to incentivise vaccine uptake.
We can all agree that the vaccination programme has been a huge success. There is often competition among the four nations of the UK, and I am pleased that Scotland is holding its own, but all four nations have done incredibly well in their vaccination programmes. However, across the UK, uptake among younger cohorts is far lower than we would like it to be. Using a vaccination passport scheme would not mean that we would not continue to run drop-in clinics, use mobile vaccination units or do social media messaging—we will do those things. However, there is evidence to suggest that vaccine certification schemes can help with uptake among younger cohorts. In fact, in Scotland, there has been a 10.4 per cent increase—[
.] I will not take an intervention just now. I want to continue for a second.
There has been a 10.4 per cent increase in first-dose vaccination uptake among 18 to 29-year-olds in Scotland. In Israel, a 100 per cent increase in daily doses was observed over a 10-day period when the country announced its Covid passport scheme—[
.] I am afraid that I cannot take an intervention, as I have to wind up shortly. France has seen an increased uptake as well.
I will end by addressing some of the points that Pam Duncan-Glancy made. I want to reassure her that exemptions on medical grounds and for those on clinical trials will be available. We will publish guidance on those points before the implementation of any scheme begins. We will also have an interim solution for people who have been vaccinated outside Scotland, and thereafter we will have a digital solution.
Our discussion today has often descended into a lot of heat, but I believe that there is a collective desire among all of us to return to some sort of normality and to support all parts of society to engage in activities that have been missed for some time.
We have a consensus that we must support the country in recovering from the past 18 months, and we must continue to take proportionate measures. I believe that the scheme is, in very limited settings, a proportionate response to suppress the virus to a level that is consistent with alleviating its harms while we recover for a better future. Covid certification allows us to provide assurances and reduce the risk of transmission in those limited settings, in particular, and that is why I ask members to support the motion that is before us today.