By Bill Heaney
Labour leader Anas Sarwar today asked Nicola Sturgeon why – given the high transmissibility of the delta variant of Covid – what evidence has led the First Minister and her ministers to do a U-turn, disagree with the scientists and now back vaccine passports?
He was speaking before the SNP government, with the help of the Scottish Green Party, approved the introduction of the passports which has been the subject of considerable controversy in recent days and weeks.
Mr Sarwar said: “Scottish Labour will not support the proposals. We have supported the Government at key moments throughout the pandemic, but this is about what works and what will make a meaningful difference.
Labour leader Anas Sarwar and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
“The scientific advisory group for emergencies, on which the Scottish Government’s chief medical officer sits, says that any proposals should consider these three key points:
“1) isolate those that are infectious from the rest of the population”—
vaccine passports will not do that;
“2) reduce the likelihood that they enter higher-risk settings or situations”—
vaccine passports will not do that; and
“3) attempt to decrease the transmission risk from an infectious person in any given environment.”
He added: “Given the high transmissibility of the delta variant, vaccine passports will not do that. What evidence has led the First Minister and her ministers to change their minds, disagree with those scientists and now back vaccine passports?
Ms Sturgeon denied the U-turn. She said: “First, I have not changed my mind. I said to the Parliament, on 3 August most recently, but before that in April and February, that we were considering the issue of vaccine certification. We had not ruled it out but had wanted to properly consider all the issues, and that is what we have done.
“We have also listened to and continue to listen to a range of evidence. Vaccine certification is not a 100 per cent solution in and of itself. All the things that Anas Sarwar rightly ran through have to be done but, in addition, vaccine passports can provide an added layer of protection.
“Take, for example, a nightclub, where people come together and there is the potential for super-spreading events. If we make sure that, in addition to all the other protections, everybody in that nightclub has been fully vaccinated, we do not eradicate the risk of transmission, but we reduce it and significantly reduce the risk of illness.
“Crucially, we also give an alternative to the possibility, as we go into winter, of the closure of those kinds of events.
“Is it a complete solution? No, but in the face of this challenging pandemic, there is no one single solution. We have to take all the ways that we can to act as proportionately as possible to keep the country as safe as possible.
“That is the responsible way in which the Government is going to continue to act. Some of what we have heard from the Opposition suggests that a bit more genuine grown-up politics on this issue would go a long way.”
Mr Sarwar asked if the FM was saying that all the businesses out there that are worried are being disrespectful? Is she saying that the thousands of people who have emailed us are being disrespectful? These are serious questions that deserve serious answers.
People will require to have two jabs before they receive a vaccine passport.
He added: The FM has published a document that contains no evidence that vaccine certification will make a difference and no details of how it will work. She references nightclubs, but the document suggests that the Government still does not even know what ‘nightclubs’ means, and they will be expected to introduce the measures in three weeks’ time.
“The FM is expecting businesses across the country, many of which have only just reopened, and some of which are still closed, to implement and enforce the scheme in that short period. That will put immense pressure on them and even greater pressure on the staff who have to administer it.
“Earlier this year, the UK Government undertook a consultation on vaccine passports, to which it received 52,000 responses, including from major industry bodies that would be impacted by the change.
“Can the FM detail what engagement she has had with the relevant sectors? Can she confirm that there has been a public consultation in Scotland and, if so, how many responses have been received?”
The First Minister assured him: “Engagement is and will continue to be on-going, and the Parliament will debate and vote on the issue this afternoon. We engage with the public on a range of issues all of the time.
“I made a comment about Anas Sarwar’s position—it was not a comment about anybody else’s position. To say categorically, as he did at the weekend, that, no matter what, he would vote against something is, frankly, opposition for opposition’s sake.
“I think that that reflects rather poorly on Anas Sarwar, but that is my opinion, and people can agree or disagree with that.
“Of course businesses have concerns about any of the measures that we have to take to try to tackle and contain Covid. I wish that we were not in this position at all—I wish that we were not even having to consider any measures to constrain the spread of an infectious virus—but we are in this situation.
“It is a very difficult situation, particularly with the increased transmissibility of delta, which is one of the other things that have changed since we first started talking about this. I would think that, for businesses in higher-risk settings, it will, on balance, be a choice between being able to continue to operate over the next few months or finding themselves facing a period of closure again. I am sure that there will be a variety of opinions, but I think that many such businesses would prefer this targeted, proportionate measure to closure.
“Scotland is not alone in considering vaccine certification. An increasing number of countries across Europe are already using vaccine certification on a much more wide-ranging basis than we are proposing. In some cases—France, for example—vaccine certification is pushing up rates of vaccination uptake and helping to constrain and reduce transmission. We need to use every tool at our disposal to drive down infection rates and keep people safe while, at the same time, keeping our economy open. Anybody who buries their head in the sand in the face of that is not doing the economy or businesses any favours.”
‘Even if someone has had the vaccine, they can still get the virus and spread it, ‘ – Sarwar
Mr Sarwar was scathing of the SNP approach. He said: “The First Minister wanted us to wait for the publication of the document that it has published today. There are businesses that will be impacted by vaccine certification that have longer cocktail menus than that document.
“We need some real-life experience from the First Minister on this issue. Instead of creating a new system, we should fix the systems that we already have. That means, after 18 months, finally giving test and protect the support that it needs.
“We know that the vaccine works—we know that it reduces hospitalisations and deaths—but, even if someone has had the vaccine, they can still get the virus and spread it, so it is more important to ensure that anyone going into a venue has had a negative result.
“Under the Government’s proposals, however, someone who does not have a vaccine passport and does not have the virus will not be allowed to enter a venue, while someone who has a passport and has the virus will be able to walk straight in. How does that make sense?
“There are no details published in the paper, no evidence to back up the proposals, no meaningful engagement with the sectors involved and no public consultation. Is it not the case that the First Minister is rushing the proposals through Parliament in an attempt to look in control of a virus that is clearly out of control?”
Ms Sturgeon hit back by suggesting that Labour was short on “grown up politics” – “Most people who are watching this will probably breathe a sigh of relief that Anas Sarwar is not standing here.
“Clever quips might sound good in a student union, but when we are trying to deal with a global pandemic, it is more important that we have the solutions that help to keep people safe.
“Let us take some of Mr Sarwar’s points in turn. He appears to be saying that negative test results should be used in place of proof of vaccination. We suggest to people that they test themselves regularly.
“Lateral flow device testing is an important part of our overall response, but one of its constraints, which means that it does not make sense to put too much reliance on it for the kind of thing that we are talking about here, is that it is a self-reported test. Given the high transmissibility of the delta variant, vaccine passports will not do that.
“What evidence has led the First Minister and her ministers to change their minds, disagree with those scientists and now back vaccine passports? We have to be careful that we do not introduce false security around such a system.”
Praying in aid a statement by a UK government minister seemed a strange tactic for Ms Sturgeon in the middle of the SNP campaign for a independence referendum.
“The other point is that people can still get the virus if they are vaccinated. Anybody looking at the current statistics knows that, but vaccination reduces people’s risk of getting the virus.
“Do you want to be in a nightclub in which some people are unvaccinated or do you want to be in a nightclub in which everybody is vaccinated? In the latter, your risk of getting the virus is going to be significantly lower than in the former. Is the risk eradicated? No, but no single measure will eradicate risk.
“This is about having a basket of measures. It is about testing and making sure that people isolate when they are required to. It is also about ensuring that we use vaccination to its fullest effect. We need to drive up vaccination rates and then ensure that we use the protection of vaccination as effectively as possible. This measure is one part of a solution.
“Anas Sarwar says that we are rushing this through in Scotland. Actually, in Scotland we are behind the curve on this, as so many countries in Europe are already doing it and finding the benefits of doing so. Let us get on with it and discharge our responsibility to keep this country as safe as possible.”
Speaking as the SNP and Scottish Greens voted to introduce Covid ID cards in Scotland, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton, pictured left, condemned the decision and confirmed that his party will continue to campaign for their abolition.
In his speech in the debate, Mr Cole-Hamilton warned the government that given the potential for those who have been vaccinated to still transmit the virus, vaccine passports would give people a false sense of security
Mr Cole-Hamilton said: “Scottish Liberal Democrats are fundamentally opposed to the introduction of mandatory vaccine certification on grounds both of ideology and of practicality.
“In particular I am dismayed that on such a fundamental recalibration of our civil liberties, the Government have failed to produce any substantive detail for the introduction of these measures.
“Practical problems seem to be endless and will affect virtually everyone. Business owners are left in the dark and will have to wait until the very last minute to discover whether they will have to ask for a Covid ID to their patrons. The system does not specify how it will handle those who received one or both doses outside Scotland, nor how it will handle the booster programme. It only leaves questions and confusion.