Covid-19 Vaccination Passport Scheme

– in the Scottish Parliament on 30th September 2021.

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Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

1. The Scottish National Party’s vaccination passport scheme comes into effect in just a few hours’ time and, although the judgment has now been delivered, as late as this morning businesses were still in court trying to halt the scheme. Guidance is still being published, and the app was to be launched today. So far, we have the app to check vaccination passports, but we do not have the app for vaccination passports. Everything has been left to the last minute, and that is not the way to run any scheme, let alone one that will affect people right across Scotland. The First Minister and I disagree strongly about the policy, and my party wants it scrapped but, surely, even she must accept that the scheme is not ready and needs to be delayed?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

No, I do not agree with that. Perhaps understandably, from his perspective, Douglas Ross wants simply to gloss over this morning’s decision by the Court of Session, which rejected the application for interim interdict. Therefore, let me summarise and paraphrase the reasons that were given for that rejection: the scheme had been consulted on; there had been an opportunity to take part in the consultation; the scheme that was introduced was not “disproportionate, irrational or unreasonable”; it was reasonable to bring in the phased approach; there was no discrimination; and, in summary, the scheme attempted to address legitimate concerns in a reasonable and “balanced way”.

All along, I have been very candid and clear. None of us wants to be in this position and none of us wants to take any of the steps that we have had to take over 18 months, in order to seek to contain the virus, keep people safe and limit the damage to health and other damage that the virus does. However, we are still in the pandemic; there are around 1,000 people in our hospitals with the virus or because of it and, of course, we face what might be the most difficult winter that any of us can imagine. The vaccination passport scheme is a targeted and proportionate way to try to reduce the harm that the virus will do over the winter months, while keeping our economy fully open, functioning and trading. The judgment from the court this morning recognises both those reasons and the way in which the Government has gone about that.

The legal obligation for the passport scheme comes into force tomorrow, and we will continue to engage with business, not just in the run-up to the enforcement, which comes into place on 18 October, but afterwards, to make sure that we are listening and understanding and that all of us work collectively to keep the country as safe as possible, as we go through the winter months.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

The First Minister claims that she has been candid and clear; if only her vaccination passport scheme were candid and clear. She said that I glossed over the legal challenge, but I mentioned it right at the top of my question. Surely, it shows how badly the Government has worked with businesses that they had to take that last-minute legal challenge and they were still in court with her Government this morning.

Sectors are desperately trying to stop the scheme from going ahead, because they are so worried about the impact that it will have on their businesses and Scottish jobs. The scheme starts at 5 am tomorrow but, by tomorrow night, we could be in the ridiculous situation in which hundreds of people will be at venues where they need a vaccination passport to get in but, if the music is turned off, the same people suddenly do not need a vaccination passport. At the football this weekend, thousands of people will need to go through vaccination passport checks, in a short space of time, without any public campaign to inform them of the procedures that they will have to go through. Does the First Minister not realise that, to everyone in the real world, that looks like a complete farce?

The First Minister:

Again—no, I do not. Although very few people, if any, like the measures that we are having to take in order to control the virus, the vast majority of people across Scotland understand the reasons for those measures and would prefer a situation where people are asked to show proof of vaccination over a situation where venues such as nightclubs or large-scale events have to close or stop again. That is the balance that we are seeking to strike.

With regard to the legal challenge, any organisation in a democracy has the right to challenge the decisions of Government right up until those decisions come into force and, indeed, afterwards. Interestingly, the Tories south of the border are seeking to take the right to judicial review away completely, or at least limit it considerably.

However, the judgment of Lord Burns this morning is very clear and emphatic. On the point about some venues and some circumstances being covered but not others, again, I paraphrase and summarise, but the judgment recognises that it is widely known that the combination of alcohol and dancing, late at night and inside, create a high risk environment for the transmission of Covid, which does not occur to the same extent in other venues.

There is no perfection when you are dealing with an infectious virus. All the steps and measures that we have to take are imperfect, and of course they are far from ideal. However, we cannot simply wish Covid away. We have to take the steps to get cases back under control.

I said this the other day, and I think that it is worth repeating. Over recent months, Douglas Ross has opposed almost every step that we have tried to take, from face coverings through to Covid vaccination certification. If I had listened to Douglas Ross, we would probably not be in the position that we are in—thankfully—of having cases on a downward path. Perhaps it is Douglas Ross who needs to reflect a bit more on some of the arguments that he makes in this chamber.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

If the First Minister had listened to those of us on these benches, she would not be introducing a scheme from 5 am tomorrow that sees hundreds of people get their vaccination passports checked as they walk into a venue, when, if the music gets unplugged, they will suddenly, miraculously, not need a vaccination passport at all. If she had listened to those on the Conservative benches, she would not be introducing a scheme from 5 am tomorrow that cannot be enforced for more than a fortnight after that.

Businesses have never had a tougher time than right now, but they are getting guidance on vaccination passports at the very last minute. The evidence case for those passports—if it can be called that, because there is barely any evidence for this policy—was put before a Scottish Parliament committee for the first time this morning. There are so many flaws littered throughout the scheme, and proper consideration has not taken place.

Let us look at just one key part of the legislation. Who has the Scottish Government consulted with over regulation 16A, and what was the outcome of those discussions?

The First Minister:

We have consulted with a range of stakeholders. I do not have the regulations in front of me right now. I am very happy to come back afterwards and go through every particular regulation and say who precisely we have consulted with.

Let us come back to the heart of the matter here. There is one point that I agree with Douglas Ross on: if I had listened to him and the Conservatives, many of the steps that we have taken to try to get Covid cases back under control would not have been taken. I am afraid that the consequence of that might well have been that Covid cases would still be rising. Just a few weeks ago, Douglas Ross was complaining about the continued legal requirement to wear face coverings. He has opposed, literally, almost everything that we have done. I think that this is just part of a pattern, and it will probably leave most people to think that it is a good thing that Douglas Ross is not standing here, facing the need to take these decisions.

The Presiding Officer:

My apologies, I assumed that the First Minister had finished.

The First Minister:

I was going to address the points about evidence, because evidence is important. Douglas Ross likes, quite legitimately, to quote different people in the chamber. With regard to the scrutiny of the regulations that took place in a meeting of the Covid-19 Recovery Committee just this morning, let me reflect on the comments of Professor Christopher Dye, who is professor of epidemiology at the University of Oxford, in which he commended the evidence paper and said that, with one of two comments or queries, he would

“broadly agree with its recommendations.”

He also said:

“I think that it is a very good report, actually, and I agree with its basic recommendations, which is that vaccination certification is a useful device and approach to support the vaccination programme in Scotland.”

That takes us back to the heart of the matter. We have an infectious virus circulating that has taken far too many lives. It is still doing too much damage: 1,000 people are in our hospitals with Covid right now, as we speak. It is incumbent on Government to take responsible, reasonable and targeted measures to keep the country safe as we go into a potentially very difficult winter. That is a responsibility that I am going to continue to treat and discharge with the utmost seriousness.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

The First Minister had two bites of the cherry to answer that question, and she could not do it. There are only half a dozen regulations in her legislation, which comes into effect from 5 am tomorrow. If it is somehow unreasonable to expect her to know about regulation 16A, which was discussed in the COVID-19 Recovery Committee this morning

, she can turn to her Deputy First Minister, who appeared before the committee, and ask for answers—but I see that he does not seem to know, either. That just shows the lack of engagement and the lack of consultation that there has been and the SNP’s lack of understanding of its own policy.

The Government seems to be making it up as it goes along. Just look at what John Swinney said at the COVID-19 Recovery Committee this morning. He could not even tell the members what will be the criteria to end the Covid passport scheme. He is whispering in the First Minister’s ear, so let us hope that she can tell us because he could not at the committee this morning.

The SNP Government is the only one in Europe to run a scheme like this, relying purely on the vaccination status of people and banning them from venues unless they can produce official paperwork. It is the only Government in Europe forcing higher costs on to businesses and such restrictive rules on to the public. Nicola Sturgeon wants independence in Europe: well, she has got it. She is completely alone in pursuing this shambles of a scheme. Why are countries across Europe, thousands of Scottish businesses, the Scottish Beer and Pub Association, the Scottish hospitality group, the Night Time Industries Association, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, the Scottish Licensed Trade Association and the Scottish Human Rights Commission all wrong, but Nicola Sturgeon is right?

The First Minister:

It is interesting that in the course of that ramble Douglas Ross appears to have completely changed the basis for his opposition to Covid certification—Anas Sarwar changed the basis of his about a week ago. Up until now, I understood that, for Douglas Ross, the objection was that it was far too difficult for businesses to comply with the scheme, but now it is because we are requiring proof of vaccination only, not proof of a negative test. I have set out clearly why we are not doing that at this point and the fact that we will keep that under review.

T he principal reason why we are taking that approach right now is because we are trying to drive up vaccination rates. We set out the rationale, the reasons and the detail, a court has looked at that over the past 24 hours—I have already summarised the judgment of the court, which was delivered this very morning—and the committee has scrutinised it again this morning. We have listened to businesses, which is why we have delayed enforcement to allow businesses a grace period to test their arrangements in practice.

I come back to the central point. I am left wondering what exactly Douglas Ross would support us doing to keep Covid under control, to protect people’s health, to protect our economy and to save lives. The position that he is taking right now is to oppose everything that the Government does, simply for the sake of opposition. That is irresponsible at any time, but in the face of a deadly virus that is particularly irresponsible from the Conservatives.