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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, November 18, 2021

COVID-19 Recovery Committee 18 November 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: Baseline Health Protection Measures, Ministerial Statements and Subordinate Legislation


Contents


Baseline Health Protection Measures

Good morning and welcome to the 11th meeting of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee in 2021. This morning we will continue our inquiry into baseline health protection measures, with a specific focus on how the measures are working in the hospitality, business and leisure sectors.

I welcome to the meeting Gavin Stevenson, from the Scottish Licensed Trade Association; Leon Thompson, executive director, Scotland, UKHospitality; Barry McCulloch, head of policy, Federation of Small Businesses Scotland; Kirsty Cumming, chief executive of Community Leisure UK; and Professor Irene Petersen, professor of epidemiology and health informatics at University College London. Thank you for giving us your time this morning.

This is the third of four planned evidence sessions on baseline health protection measures. The measures are the main tools that we are using to respond to Covid-19 and include ventilation, face coverings, social distancing and vaccination.

Each member will have approximately 12 minutes to speak to the panel and ask their questions. We are tight for time this morning and have a number of witnesses, so I ask you to please keep your responses as brief as possible. Do not feel that you have to answer every question. I apologise in advance: if time runs on too much, I may have to interrupt members or witnesses in the interests of brevity. I will begin by asking the first question.

As we move into winter and try to keep as many businesses open as possible, the committee has been looking at baseline health protection measures such as ventilation, on which the committee heard from experts on 4 November. I remember, Mr Stevenson, that when you appeared before the committee on 16 September 2021 you told us that, in general, large nightclubs already have good-quality ventilation systems in place. The Scottish Government has announced £25 million for businesses to improve ventilation and install CO2 monitors to reduce transmission.

How well ventilated are premises in the leisure and hospitality sectors? How many businesses currently have CO2 monitors? Are businesses considering their use?

I will go to Gavin Stevenson first.

We have not tracked the number of businesses that currently have CO2 monitors, but we would be very happy to survey our members and come back to the committee with some more accurate information.

On the grants for ventilation, certainly £25 million is very welcome support for the sector, and I imagine that businesses are looking forward to the grant system opening next week. I note that individual grants are capped at £2,500 per application, which will certainly help with things such as additional vents or window openings but which will not be enough to cover the installation of substantial mechanical ventilation systems.

On the current state of ventilation across the sector, the larger premises, and the larger nightclubs in particular, tend to have very good mechanical ventilation, because that has always been required for customer safety. Smaller premises, which are perhaps in listed buildings, may have less ability to install large mechanical ventilation systems, but they will have a form of ventilation throughout the premises because that has always been a requirement for customer safety. Anything that can be done to improve ventilation will be welcomed by the sector.

Thank you. I ask Leon Thompson from UKHospitality the same questions.

Good morning. I am absolutely in line with Gavin Stevenson on this. At this point, it is not possible to give you a figure on how many businesses have CO2 monitors, but I am happy to check that with my membership. I suggest that many more probably have them now than had them before. Ventilation has been a topic of discussion for a number of months—it was certainly discussed over the summer. Businesses have been getting ready for the winter and looking at the Government advice that has been made available on improved ventilation.

The ventilation grant scheme, which goes live and opens for applications next week, is very welcome, and businesses will make good use of it. The only caveat is that, given that we have been talking about the issue since the early part of the summer, it is disappointing that the scheme is only going live now, towards the end of November.

The ventilation that is in place varies from business to business, as Gavin Stevenson said. I draw the committee’s attention to the fact that hospitality businesses have made good use of outdoor space when they have been open and trading over the past few months. We would like that to continue.

Thank you. I will bring in Kirsty Cumming from Community Leisure UK.

Thank you. Like the previous two witnesses, we do not have a robust statistic for CO2 monitors but, through conversations with our members, we know that the vast majority of them have such monitoring in place. We also know that the Scottish Government guidance on CO2 monitoring has led to a number of spaces across public sector leisure and culture not being able to return to full capacity or reopen.

One of the main challenges for our membership is the range of venues and buildings that they operate in. They operate in a number of heritage buildings, older venues and smaller spaces, where ventilation is inevitably more difficult and would require substantial upgrading. Some spaces have not reopened at all yet because of that issue, and some are operating with reduced capacity.

The Scottish Government’s announcement of a £25 million fund is very welcome, but it specifically excludes our members. None of our members is eligible for that fund, as arm’s-length external organisations are excluded from it. However, even if the ALEO exclusion were removed, the rateable value criterion would exclude the vast majority of our members.

Digging into the detail of the funding, we can see that very small amounts are available for individual items, and it is very challenging for businesses in our sector to go through the logistics of applying for very small pots of funding. We also know that there is not a huge amount of funding available from other sources for ventilation, so where necessary, the cost is being picked up by our members themselves or with their local authority partners.

Enforcement of the ventilation guidance is another issue that comes through strongly from our members. There is clear guidance from the Scottish Government on ventilation and our members are fully compliant with that. However, there is a feeling that that is not the case across all venues in our sector or in other sectors, and that enforcement is leading to an unequal playing field.

Thank you. That was very informative. I put the same questions to Barry McCulloch from the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland.

Thank you, convener, and good morning. I echo many of the comments that have already been made. The launch of the £25 million business ventilation fund next week is a significant development. There are clear market failures around the ability of the smallest businesses to make sure that they are properly ventilated during the winter months, given that they will not be able to do what they have done during the spring and summer seasons.

As Leon Thompson said, there has been a hiatus between the announcement of the fund in late September and the publication of the details this week. I offer three points by way of initial reaction. First, there is a lack of precision in who the fund is aimed at, given that there are more than 25 different types of businesses that could apply for a fund of £25 million. Secondly, there is a lack of clarity on how the application and appeals process will operate. As we have seen during the crisis, it is possible that there will be 32 different systems and 32 different appeals processes, which, as we know, can lead to businesses in one area receiving funds whereas the local authority in another area does not pay out. Finally, given the certification scheme, which we may go on to talk about, there is the potential for businesses to be disappointed as a result of the likely high demand for funding and the relatively small amounts available, with the cap set at £2,500 per eligible premises.

Thank you. I move on to Murdo Fraser.

Good morning, panel. I will start with Gavin Stevenson and ask about the announcement from the Scottish Government on Tuesday that it is considering extending the vaccination passport scheme, which could come in from 4 December, if I remember rightly—we will hear about that on Tuesday coming. What is your view on a possible extension and the impact that, were it to be introduced, that would have on businesses in your sector? What engagement have you had with Scottish Government ministers around the policy?

The five trade bodies in Scotland surveyed members last week to ascertain the economic impact of the current vaccination passports scheme, which has been little short of devastating for a substantial proportion of businesses. We have provided information to the committee about the financial damage that has been done so far. There has been a decrease in turnover of between 20 and 40 per cent between the month before vaccination passports were implemented and the month after their implementation. There is a direct correlation between the implementation of vaccination passports and a substantial, unsustainable decrease in trade. Therefore, any proposed extension of the scheme is deeply unwelcome for the sector.

Of course, the problem is not particular to Scotland. We now have data from Wales, where a survey this week showed a substantial decrease in trade in the Welsh sector as well. There are similar reports internationally, excerpts of which we have provided to the committee, showing decreases in trade in France, Canada and elsewhere after similar schemes were implemented.

If the Scottish Government is determined to proceed with the roll-out of the scheme, it will be absolutely essential to have significant financial support in place for this winter, otherwise a substantial proportion of businesses will not survive.

Thank you, Mr Stevenson. My second question was about the engagement that you have had with Scottish Government ministers on the issue.

The trade bodies requested a meeting with the First Minister some two months ago. We received an acknowledgement of the request but no meeting has been scheduled yet. Last week, we requested a meeting with the Deputy First Minister and were told that he was unavailable. We have a meeting scheduled with Mr McKee today, and we will see what the outcome of that meeting is.

Thank you. I put the same questions to Mr McCullough.

I agree with Gavin Stevenson’s points. Notwithstanding the comments made by the Deputy First Minister about the possible expansion of the scheme, it is fair to say that the statement that was made in the chamber last week took many business owners by surprise. We and others have been monitoring the current scheme and the situation in Wales, but were surprised by the potentially large expansion to cover indoor hospitality and leisure settings that is under consideration. That led us, as it led colleagues, to conduct a snap poll. We contacted more than 600 members, and the poll revealed that 52 per cent of businesses across the economy were opposed to the move, which is a notable finding in itself.

09:15  

The story that we were most interested in, which we have been talking to Scottish Government officials about, was the reaction from the businesses that could be caught by the expanded scheme. It will surprise few to learn that opposition to an expanded scheme increased to 77 per cent, with hospitality and leisure businesses fearing that the scheme would lead to increased costs, reduced sales and a considerable increase in antisocial behaviour.

We have been talking to Scottish Government officials since the statement was made by the Deputy First Minister last week and putting forward the case for mitigating the impact on the smallest businesses.

Thank you.

It has been interesting to hear from the previous two witnesses about experience in other sectors. My perspective is slightly different because we do not have vaccination passports in our sector at the moment. We have had a consultation and a few conversations with our members about what the possible expansion across public sector leisure and culture would mean. Our members have significant concerns about that.

There is a logistical challenge around how the scheme could be implemented. A lot of leisure centres have what we call easy access gates—that is, there is no reception desk. Additional staff would be required to check passports, against a backdrop of a recruitment crisis in the sector. We are already struggling to recruit more front-of-house staff in particular across leisure and culture.

There is also the angle that, against a backdrop of financial pressures, dealing with the scheme would be unaffordable, and there are concerns around pressure on staff, particularly in relation to mental wellbeing. There are already huge pressures on a number of staff across the country due to the recruitment crisis in the sector, staffing shortages, changed working patterns and the whole Covid landscape. There is concern that an extension of the scheme would be an additional pressure. There is also the risk of antisocial behaviour from those who are opposed to Covid passports.

One key concern that has been raised is the health risk. At the moment, our members are operating time-slot bookings to try to ensure that people are not gathering outside venues ahead of their activities. If we bring in Covid passports and a check-in process is required, there is a significant risk that that will lead to people queuing to get into venues, which does not happen at the moment, and that people will have to queue outside in the winter months.

There are also concerns relating to our members’ customer base. A lot of people who use our members’ facilities are older people and people with underlying or long-term health conditions. Covid passports will bring in another barrier to people being active, whether that is through queuing or through confusion over how to access Covid passports. Difficulties with accessing Covid passports are a risk for who are digitally excluded, who would have to bring paper passports with them, and for those who have additional support needs, such as people who are living with dementia. Our members run a number of dementia-friendly activities and the scheme could be another barrier for them.

Covid passports are currently in place in settings that are different from those where our members operate. Most of our members’ venues are open for up to 13 hours a day, seven days a week, which is quite different from some of the other settings where Covid passports are currently being used, and there are staffing issues that go alongside that.

The main concern is that, by bringing in another barrier, the scheme would deter people from being active and would have an impact on their wellbeing.

Thank you.

I have the same thoughts as the other witnesses. The announcement of a possible expansion of the scheme has caused widespread alarm across hospitality. Hospitality businesses that are currently not in scope are very well aware of the impact that it is having on those that are in scope. Some businesses that are currently out of scope are experiencing some economic impacts as a result of the scheme in any case.

Staffing issues are a big concern for our sector. Checking passports as people arrive will be a major challenge. The timing of any expansion will be very difficult. Hospitality businesses are getting ready for what they hope will be a busy Christmas season. If the expansion of the scheme begins on 6 December, which is the date that has been given, that has the potential to be pretty disastrous for businesses. They may already have bookings in place that people may cancel, and other people may not make bookings, deciding instead to have celebrations at home rather than going out to a hospitality venue.

The idea of an expansion has caused alarm—quite rightly, given that, as Gavin Stevenson highlighted, the findings of our joint survey show that the current scheme is having a detrimental impact on business.

I want to switch to Professor Petersen and the question of testing. I had a look at the paper that explains why lateral flow testing may be relatively better now, or better than it was thought to be, in comparison with polymerase chain reaction testing. However, the paper was quite complex. Will you briefly and in simple words explain for me where you have got to with that?

Yes. I accept that it is not a simple paper, but it is a very important one, because there was a lot of doubt around lateral flow tests when they were first introduced earlier this year. One of the key problems was that the lateral flow test was compared directly with the PCR test without taking into account that they are two different types of test. Therefore, when studies were made, it was like comparing apples and oranges, and it appeared from many studies that the lateral flow test had a very low sensitivity. There were reports of a sensitivity of 40 per cent, for example.

That happened because the PCR test tests for genetic material. When a person has Covid, they have genetic material in their body for a long period after they have been infectious. When a sample of 1,000 people, for example, is taken, people may test positive in the PCR test, but probably more than half of them will not be infectious if they have no symptoms. On the other hand, the lateral flow test is a test of infection. It identifies the proteins from the virus, so it tests positive only in the period in which a person is infectious. The paper illustrates that.

When we make a direct comparison between lateral flow tests and PCR tests, it may appear that the lateral flow tests have a much lower sensitivity, but their sensitivity is much higher if we want to examine when people are infectious. We estimate that that is above 80 per cent and possibly close to 95 per cent.

It sounds very encouraging that we can put more reliance on lateral flow tests. Can we go as far as saying that we should just forget about the PCR tests and rely purely on the lateral flow tests?

For a public health measure, I would say yes, but PCR tests have a very important function in sequencing for new variants, so there is still a place for PCR testing. However, I would not use PCR tests as a public health tool.

Others may come back to you on that, but I appreciate that answer.

I want to switch to things that Mr Stevenson has said about vaccination passports, for example. Do you think that you have been slightly overstating your case, that there has been a certain amount of crying wolf, and that people are not taking you seriously because you use such strong language, such as the word “devastating”? That is my key question.

I have tried to get into a restaurant in Edinburgh on a Wednesday night, and it was absolutely full, and I have gone into a pub in Edinburgh on a Wednesday night, and I could not find a seat. In Glasgow last Friday night, I was in a restaurant that was absolutely full. Parts of the hospitality and licensed trade sector seem to be doing absolutely fine. I went into a COP26 event the other week and showed my passport, and there was no problem; it was absolutely fine. It seems that, in France, a person can go into a cafe or a shop, show their passport, and there are no problems. Do you think that you are overstating your case?

The challenge that we have is that all the venues that you have just mentioned are currently not required to use vaccination passports. On being able to get a seat in a busy restaurant or a busy pub, those are largely venues that do not currently have to use vaccination passports, so there would be substantially less impact on them from the current implementation of vaccination passports. On the other hand, if you have read the survey results that we submitted, you will have found that all five of the Scottish trade bodies surveyed their members and that there was a very significant decrease in trade for those venues and premises.

You mentioned the roll-out in France. The National Federation of French Cinemas reported that it had lost 7 million ticket sales in a month due to the implementation of Covid passports. One of the French hospitality trade bodies reported that 80 per cent of bars and cafes and 60 per cent of restaurants saw their revenues drop by at least a fifth in the month after the implementation of vaccination passports. There have been similar outcomes when vaccination passports have been rolled out in Canada and New York City. Therefore, that is not a problem just in Scotland; that has been the experience elsewhere.

When barriers are put between customers and businesses with vaccination passports, that inevitably results in a substantial loss of trade. We have previously given evidence to the committee that businesses in our sector require a turnover of 90 per cent or so of normal levels to break even. It is clear that, when their turnover is reduced by 20, 25 or 40 per cent, there will be a devastating impact that will absolutely affect their viability.

Thank you for that.

I will switch to Leon Thompson. The argument has been put previously that, if vaccination passports were used more widely, businesses and individuals would be more familiar with them, so they would become the norm. From what I have heard, that has been the case in France—one of my staff was there recently. Do you think that that would be the case? If a negative test was part of the system, would you be more comfortable with it?

On the point about vaccination passports being easier for people to use and they would accept them more if they were the norm, that is not what we are talking about. We are still talking about an expansion that targets hospitality; we are not talking about extending the scheme out to the rest of everyday life. The burden is being put on hospitality businesses. Hospitality businesses are continuing to prove their mettle in the face of a number of challenges, but they still reported a decline of at least 10 per cent in business in the last quarter compared with 2019. They are not in a strong position—they are still very fragile. Anything that comes in that potentially damages the move towards recovery is unwelcome.

09:30  

Hospitality businesses have continued to deploy baseline measures and to go beyond those measures to keep staff and workers safe. They are currently running very safe venues, and no evidence has been provided so far by the Scottish Government that vaccination passports are making a difference to transmission rates or that an expansion will make the difference that is being sought for the months ahead.

Professor Irene Petersen would like to respond to that point.

I will make a comment as a user of a Covid passport. This summer, I went on holiday to Denmark, where Covid passports were widely used, and not once did I find that there was a problem in getting into venues or in staff having trouble checking the Covid passport. At that time, my younger daughter was not fully vaccinated, so she had to have a test passport, but that worked out very well. All the venues that we visited welcomed the passport, because it gave the customers a feeling of being safer in the environment, with the chance of encountering somebody who had Covid being much lower in those venues.

I suggest that the committee take that into consideration when it evaluates the use of passports. I fully appreciate that there might be some cost, but it is not up to me comment on that.

That is very helpful.

I will come to Kirsty Cumming first. Community leisure is a particular interest of mine. How do you feel that the leisure industry has managed to adapt through the pandemic? How has it fared? My experience is that it has been extremely good at delivering a safe environment.

Our members’ adaptation has been phenomenal, whether that has been the pivot to digital, adapting the new safety measures, or the communications that they sent out to users of facilities. We have seen really positive feedback from users of the culture and leisure facilities across our membership. Some of the feedback on reopening has been heart-warming, showing how much people value the opportunity to be active, engage in culture and socialise.

Adapting to the situation has been a journey, as I suppose that it has been for everyone. This morning, I dialled into the committee to attend virtually. Who would have thought that we would doing that a couple of years ago?

Our members have really run with it. There is an expectation that things will change permanently, and there is a learning process as to what those things will be. We are not expecting to go back exactly to how things were. Let us take library services as an example. There has been a huge uptake digitally. More people are accessing library services than ever before, and the digital availability of content has made it much more accessible to a lot of people. The services have been a lifeline through lockdown.

My experience is quite limited—the only thing that I really see is the athletics track. The organisers have adapted by opening a gate, we are checked in externally and we no longer go through the main building. It is like a Special Air Service operation—it is quite remarkable. What would be the impact on such leisure facilities, libraries—which you mentioned—and so on—if the Covid passport is expanded into those areas?

As I touched on previously, the real concern is that that would be an additional barrier. For those who really want to be active and who are very comfortable with the passport—that will be a lot of people—it would not necessarily impact hugely on their using the facilities.

If we look at the return rate across leisure as an example, we can see that it has been increasing since reopening, although it has plateaued somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent of pre-Covid levels across our membership. Indeed, the levels are fairly consistent at that 60 to 70 per cent mark across the sector and across the United Kingdom.

It is interesting to look at who has not returned to using facilities and why they have not returned. At the moment, we do not have any concrete or robust evidence about that. Anecdotally, a lot of the people not returning are those who have more health concerns, are perhaps more vulnerable, and are more anxious about returning to public spaces and taking part in group activity. There is a real risk of creating another barrier if we bring in Covid passports.

The messaging that goes out is also an issue. If there is a Covid passport for some venues, whether that is across leisure or culture, are those venues seen as being less safe? The subliminal messaging is that there is a real risk with those venues.

Thank you. I will follow-up Murdo Fraser’s questioning about the expansion of the vaccination passport and what that might mean. I think that we all recognise that we must take measures to restrict Covid spreading. You are obviously against vaccination passports and their expansion. Barry McCulloch, what do you feel should happen? What are your alternative options to that?

My position in this debate is to represent the views of FSB members, Mr Whittle. In that regard, my role is to put forward the evidence that we have collected from more than 600 members, which detailed their views on the introduction of the scheme and its impact.

Given where we are with the potential scope of the scheme, we are focused on how to minimise the burden on the smallest and lowest-risk settings. There is a variety of options in that regard. We are trying to portray the reality of how the scheme could function in neighbourhood cafes and country cafes, for example, and what that would be like. We are trying to explore, through the context of the business and regulatory impact assessment, the trade-off between the public health gain on the one hand and the economic impact on the other.

We have done that not to be alarming but to have a grounded evidence-based conversation about what the scheme could look like. Conversations will continue to take place between Government and trade bodies to try to arrive at that point. As I said at the start, FSB members have made their views very clear in the sectors that could fall within in the scope of the scheme and they would rather the scheme did not go ahead.

Gavin Stevenson, do you have anything to add to that?

The sector is very keen to work with Government to minimise any of the adverse impacts from Covid. Equally, it would be naive to believe that, if people are excluded from going into hospitality venues because they do not have a Covid passport or because they have not been double vaccinated, they will go home, put on their pyjamas and watch television.

In previous waves of the pandemic, we saw substantial increases in house parties and gatherings in unregulated settings, where significantly fewer baseline mitigations are enforced, there might be poorer ventilation and there would not be a regulated environment for people to gather in. It was widely reported that Police Scotland broke up 44,000 house parties in the previous phase of the pandemic.

When about 90 per cent—the figure is in the high 80 per cent—of the adult population is double vaccinated, what are we trying to achieve by implementing vaccination passports across all hospitality? There is no evidence to suggest that the people who are excluded will not simply move to a less safe environment and continue mixing.

I will give Leon Thompson the opportunity to respond, if he has anything to add.

I will focus on what businesses are already doing to keep their customers and workforce safe, even beyond the baseline measures of making sure that people are wearing face coverings and getting customers to use the check-in app. Many businesses are still deploying a safety regime that goes beyond the baseline measures that came in beyond level 0. That includes cleaning measures, continuing with table service and often still having in place one-way systems. Also, there is increased distance between tables, which means that businesses can have fewer customers in at a time. They are also investing in ventilation—we have talked a little bit about that—and are keeping Perspex screens in place. Therefore, businesses are already taking a lot of action to keep their customers safe. There is no evidence that hospitality businesses have been responsible for significant spread of Covid.

I have a quick question around the timing. We are coming into a period when hospitality gets a fair proportion of their annual income and introducing more stringent controls during this time would have an impact on that. You need time to plan with staff, order supplies and work out rotas and so on. How quickly can you pivot under those circumstances?

Businesses have shown throughout the crisis that, sometimes at the drop of a hat—with two or three days’ notice, or sometimes a little bit more—they can quickly adapt and put in place measures in accordance with the regulations. Should it be that way? It absolutely should not, but I highlight the versatility and adaptability of business owners. That has been the way that they have kept going throughout the crisis and they will continue to act that way.

We want to see a period in which there is at least time to deliberate on the design of the scheme. If the debate about the scope is complete, the discussion has to move very quickly to how we do it, what it looks like and what the process is. Will we check passes at the door or inside? Perhaps, we will check passes at the booking or ordering stage. How will it work in businesses that have multiple services, such as a hotel with a restaurant or a farm with a cafe? The conversation has to accelerate quite rapidly, to give business owners time to plan.

As you mentioned, Mr Whittle, we are entering into a vital busy trading period and many FSB members will be looking to make as much money during this period, because January to February is relatively quieter. Whatever we decide, we have to take the business community with us and we have to co-design the process in whichever way we can to mitigate pressures on the smallest businesses.

I agree with Barry McCulloch’s point. Businesses have shown themselves to be adept at doing whatever is required of them, and I am sure that they will do so again if they need to. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the timescale and how that will play out with the public. We found that, when the scheme as it exists currently was introduced, it took quite a long time for members of the public to get their QR codes sorted out and be in a position to start using them.

09:45  

We had a grace period as well. It was indicated that that was for businesses, but I think that it was largely to allow the public to get used to vaccination passports. Given that we are moving into a critical time for hospitality businesses—that is, Christmas trade and so on—if the public is not ready, businesses will suffer.

I thank the witnesses for attending. I have huge sympathy for the industry. I have worked in hospitality. I had a hospitality-style business, I have worked in the food and drink sector and I still have a lot of friends and colleagues who are in it. I have taken time to speak to a lot of them. On John Mason’s point to Gavin Stevenson—I do not mean to pick on you—they are saying, “You know what, see if we’ve got to do it, we’ll do it because we’ll stay open.” That is the biggest message that I have coming back to me.

If they have a concern, it is that they cannot get enough staff. You are saying that businesses must work at 90 per cent of capacity to break even and keep going. However, a lot of businesses are working at 70 to 75 per cent capacity already because they cannot get more staff. That is the biggest issue that I am getting back.

I will also pick up on Brian Whittle’s point about how getting on top of the situation requires a community effort. We are very fortunate in this committee because we get evidence not just from medical and epidemiological experts, but from everywhere. I get that your interest is to look after your industry, but it is still a societal problem.

We know that vaccination passports were targeted at a particular age group to bring up their vaccination numbers and that that has worked to a certain extent. Therefore, I would be comfortable to see the vaccination passport extended, because it makes the messaging a lot easier. One of the things that we have explored in committee religiously is how the messaging has gone out. If people know that, between now and Christmas, they must have a vaccination passport, they will get it. In my view, if that drives up vaccination numbers, it is worth it, because your businesses will stay open. If we do not have passports and we go into another lockdown, everything will shut. Gavin Stevenson, I am happy to argue the point with you, so please come back to me.

There are a couple of issues in that. We have surveyed hundreds of premises across Scotland in the past week and asked them some of those specific questions. Some 72 per cent report that there has been a negative change in customer confidence and fewer advance bookings since the launch of vaccination passports, and only 2 per cent have reported a positive change. That is based on more than 200 responses from across the hospitality sector, and covers a broad range of membership bases of the five trade bodies. We can report back to the committee only what the members and the businesses in hospitality are telling us.

On your point about driving up vaccine take-up, I think that it is questionable whether there has been any significant change to the uptake trend in the 18 to 29 age group since the launch of vaccination passports. There was, of course, an uplift in second-dose vaccination during that time because there was a significant uplift in first-dose vaccination several months earlier and those people were due their second dose. However, if you look at first-dose vaccination rates for the vaccine hesitant or at those age groups who are resistant to vaccination, there does not appear to have been any substantial uplift in the trend rate from before and after vaccination passports were announced.

Finally, to comment on the Christmas topic, there is no time now for people to get vaccinated with two doses before Christmas. If somebody chose to get a first dose of a vaccine today, it would be 12 weeks from now until they were able to get their second dose and their vaccination passport after that. That takes us well past Christmas, so it does not seem likely that people will be motivated to go out today and get vaccinated if they have not already done so, purely to attend Christmas parties, or not this year’s Christmas parties anyway.

I dispute your point that there has not been an uptick in the number of people, particularly in the age group that you mentioned, getting vaccinated. The Deputy First Minister told us that he cannot give a definitive answer, but you also cannot prove a negative. I argue that the scheme has had the effect that we are trying to achieve.

Leon Thompson, what is your position?

I want to stay on the point about staffing, which is a major challenge for our sector. I highlight that one of the things that came out of the survey that we have shared is the extent of the abuse that has been heaped on staff working in hospitality over the past months. About 81 per cent of the businesses that responded to the survey said that levels of verbal abuse towards their staff had gone up in their hospitality venues. That has been driven largely by staff shortages and customer frustration.

I suggest that, if staff have to check vaccination certification, that is likely to lead to a rise in hostility towards staff, particularly from people turning up who do not have certification with them or cannot prove that they have been vaccinated. The pressure will fall on individual members of staff and businesses to turn away potential customers, which will increase conflict in hospitality settings.

We all understand our specific responsibilities to ensure that people are vaccinated and to take all necessary steps to keep people safe. As I said, hospitality businesses have been very good at doing that, and they will continue to play their part in that. There needs to be stronger messaging to the public about being vaccinated and the responsibilities that we each have as a member of Scottish society. If we can get that messaging right—hospitality businesses can play their part in getting that message out there, too—we will be able to get vaccination rates up without having to resort to an expansion of the Covid passport scheme.

I want to build on those comments and to stress that almost all businesses will accept additional public health measures if that is the alternative to lockdown. That has emerged strongly from the discussions that we have been having with members since the announcement was made, but that does not mean that we should not fully scrutinise additional measures such as the expansion of the vaccination certification scheme, which is the work that we are doing here.

To be clear, we are not just talking about pubs and nightclubs, we are talking about the scheme capturing large parts of the everyday economy including cafes, restaurants, gyms, personal trainers and sport and entertainment venues such as crazy golf. The argument of such businesses throughout all this is simply about the economic and public health trade-off. If there is a trade-off, a debate on that might be needed.

However, it is also important to talk about the timing and the process. We could have firmly evaluated the merits of the policy in the summer, but we are now designing and potentially implementing a scheme at breakneck speed ahead of our key trading period. The crisis has told us that such initiatives, which are often hovering in the background, cause a lot of uncertainty for business owners, even those who are not directly captured by them. It is about having honest, candid conversations with business owners while giving them the reassurance that they can trade their way out of the crisis.

As I said, I genuinely have enormous sympathy with the sector, but I also have absolute confidence, knowing the sector as I do, that it will be able to pivot and to manage an extension of the scheme. My biggest concern is about businesses not being able to staff things properly and about the increase in VAT next year. That is a much bigger issue than the vaccination passport scheme being implemented.

Irene Petersen, how widely have you distributed your findings, and how well are they being received?

Professor Petersen

I apologise—my neighbour is having building work done. I will try to answer your question. Can you repeat it, please?

Yes. How widely have you distributed your paper, and how well has it been received? Specifically, if it is accepted, is it usable as a public health measure?

The paper has been widely distributed in the media. On the day that it was published, it was on the front page of the BBC and Sky News websites. In general, there is now much more acceptance that lateral flow tests are much more sensitive than was originally thought. I do not know whether that answers your questions sufficiently.

Will your paper lead to those tests being a more usable public health measure?

I certainly hope so. We wrote the paper because we were aware of all the negative publicity that the tests had at the beginning of the pandemic. When new tools are introduced, it often takes time before people accept them and understand how important they are. Lateral flow tests are one of the most important tools that we have to keep control of Covid—apart from the vaccines, of course. As you can see from the experience of Glasgow in the previous week, for example, such tests are a very helpful tool in giving people a rapid answer and in identifying people who are infectious.

Excellent. Thank you.

Good morning. On abuse of staff, when I phoned my general practice this week, there was an automated message making it clear that, if anybody continued to be abusive to staff, they would be removed from the practice. The level of abuse towards front-line staff is therefore not particular to only the hospitality industry. I suggest that the message that needs to go out is that, if people are abusive, they will not be welcome in pubs, restaurants or whatever it is in the first place.

Gavin Stevenson said that the Government is putting up a barrier between customers and businesses, but I would hardly call my having to pull up my certificate a barrier. That is the danger that I see from what I have heard this morning, so I want to move on from the negativity. By the way, the number of young people who have been vaccinated has gone up since the proof of vaccination scheme was introduced. The issue is that you cannot necessarily claim that that was a direct result of the scheme, but you are wrong to say that the number has not gone up.

We need to take the red herrings out of the equation and start talking about what needs to happen. On that note, is it your view and the view of the industry that it would be helpful if, as well as providing proof of vaccination, people could provide proof of a negative test? That is what happened yesterday in Northern Ireland, for example, where much more stringent measures than we have here so far are being introduced. Do you have a view on that? Would that add to the proof that someone is safe to go into such venues?

10:00  

To clarify, we did not say that there had been no increase in first-dose vaccination in the 18 to 29 age group during the roll-out. We said that there had been no significant increase in the trend in first-dose vaccination during the roll-out. In the evidence packet that we sent to the committee, we provided the trend line, which uses Public Health Scotland’s data on vaccination. If you can point me to a significant increase around the launch of vaccination certification, I would be grateful, because we certainly cannot see it, having looked for it.

On providing a negative test, there are two key issues relating to the barriers that have been put between businesses and their customers. First, a proportion of customers—it is a very small proportion overall, but it is much more focused on places such as nightclubs—will not be double vaccinated. Obviously, they cannot get a vaccination passport, so they cannot get into premises. That is clearly a barrier. That barrier would certainly be removed if a customer could gain admission either by proving that they were doubled vaccinated or by proving that they had had a recent negative lateral flow test. A helpful and welcome addition to the scheme would be an option of providing a negative lateral flow test for customers who could not prove double vaccination. Does that clarify our position?

Yes, it does. Thank you.

Take-up of vaccination passports is also an issue. For a couple of weeks now, we have been asking for data from the Scottish Government on how many unique users in Scotland have taken up the offer of a vaccination passport. The Government has been unable to provide that information to us, albeit that it has noted that there have been a million and a half or so downloads of the app and some additional downloads of paper copies—but they might be, substantively, the same people who have the app. If only 30 per cent of the Scottish population have a vaccination passport, there will clearly be a barrier to the two thirds of people who have not yet managed to obtain a vaccination passport from the Government.

We are tight for time, so I ask other members of the panel, starting with Barry McCulloch, to concentrate specifically on the question of a proof of a negative test being added to the proof of vaccination certificate.

Barry McCulloch

Given that I have zero expertise on this issue, I will not contribute to this point and I will leave it to experts, such as Professor Petersen, to provide the committee with an informed view.

Would any other witnesses like to comment on that specific issue?

Yes, I think that the uptake of the Covid passport would be increased if it included a recent negative test—for example, one that was taken within the past 72 hours. Some people may decide to go and get the vaccination because it makes life a lot easier but you should also allow people to get entry if they can prove that they have a negative test. I am aware that that is part of the Danish Covid passport and also that they allow people who have recovered from a recent infection a Covid passport.

Like Barry McCulloch, I do not have a huge amount of expertise in this area, but it is worth mentioning the planning and prebooking of events. For example, with regard to the cultural side of our membership, people book tickets for things like theatre performances—pantomime is the topical one that comes up—months in advance of attending those events. There is a need to consider those who are not vaccinated for whatever reason but have already paid for tickets to events, and perhaps consideration could be given to using lateral flow testing as an alternative to a proof of vaccination status, in order to allow people entry.

Certainly, some of our members have reported that allowing a negative lateral flow test to be used as an alternative would help their businesses because they would be turning away fewer people than they are at the moment.

I spoke with theatres this week, and the point that Kirsty Cumming made about pantomimes came up.

Barry McCulloch, you do not have a view on the negative test but has the Federation of Small Businesses put forward any proposals for how the Government could support small businesses if this roll-out takes place?

That is a key point. Going back to March 2020, the other side of the coin when it comes to the consecutive interventions in public health has been direct financial support. If we go down the path that has been suggested, the relationship between public health interventions and public financial support offered by the Scottish Government would have to be part of the equation. As previous witnesses have said, all the interventions have potentially dampened trade—evidence of that is coming through in discussions with members. There is a conversation to have about how you alleviate that impact, especially for those in the unlicensed trade who do not have door staff and who have very little experience of such schemes.

The point that we make to Government officials will always be about the practical operation of any scheme and how we get it right. The crisis has also shown us that we do not always get our interventions right at the first go and we constantly need to keep them under review. Maintaining openness to ideas while also providing support to businesses is a key element when we are talking about these measures.

Thank you. I think that we all appreciate how challenging the situation is for the industry at the moment.

We have a little bit of time, so I will ask one more question. Looking at barriers for businesses at the moment, what are your views of the impact on leisure and hospitality, particularly in town and city centres and also in local communities, of the continuing shift to home working?

That is having an on-going impact. City centre hospitality businesses are particularly badly impacted by the working from home message. It is very hard for them to move forward until there is reasonable footfall again during the week in the daytime. That also spills out into the evenings because, if people are not in offices and other workplaces, nobody is going out straight from work.

We have talked about Christmas. The situation has an impact on Christmas too, as there will be fewer staff parties, work get-togethers and so on. Members are reporting that they have very few bookings for work-related Christmas events. They are hoping that they might see a bounce in those numbers, particularly around the unofficial Christmas parties. However, at the moment there is not a good picture coming from city centre hospitality venues and businesses.

It is impossible to have this discussion about the health and wellbeing of our city centres and our town centres without linking it to where we were before the crisis. Many local places are still struggling with the crisis of 2008 and other crises going back as far as the late 1980s and the start of 1990s. We have seen that there is a balance in our membership between those who have been directly affected by the loss of commuter traffic and commuter events, such as city-centre leisure hospitality businesses, and businesses that have found benefits and efficiencies in working from home.

The Scottish Government’s town centre review, which I took part in for FSB, tried to find the balance between increasing the economic benefits for local neighbourhoods where there are lots of small businesses that have done pretty well because the spend is not taking place in the city centres—it has been taking place elsewhere, albeit much of that has been online—and those trying to provide targeted measures to our city centre businesses who are really struggling. What we are seeing on top of that, to complicate matters, is a real structural shift in the economy, with increased digitisation and mass transport habits changing with how people get to work or go to work.

I think that at this point—this is also coming through from the evidence that we and others are seeing—it is difficult to disentangle the impact of the pandemic from the impact of those other structural shifts, particularly for independent retailers. You did not ask about community retailers, but we have considerable concerns about them, particularly those in places such as Edinburgh and Glasgow who rely not just on local people using their facilities and services but also rely enormously on foreign travellers coming to the country and spending money. How all of those issues go together and create uncertainty concerns us.

As we move forward through the pandemic, the Scottish Government and others will need to channel quite substantial sums of money into our city centres and towns to allow them to regenerate and regroup, given the pandemic’s impact.

I completely agree with the previous comments from colleagues. There has been a substantial impact on hospitality businesses from the decrease in footfall in town and city centres as a result of home working. It is just another of the impacts that the sector is having to deal with at the moment on top of other barriers to trade and impacts that no doubt will continue for some time to come.

I suppose it is slightly different in the leisure area. A lot of leisure sports centres are not traditionally in town centres. However, we have certainly seen an impact on usage patterns. People who traditionally commute use leisure facilities before or after work or use facilities in a different geographical area to where they live, so there has certainly been an impact from that perspective.

The other impact that we have seen comes from the reduced footfall in town centres, as previous speakers mentioned. The footfall for museums and galleries and other cultural attractions has been significantly down. We could not draw any conclusions on whether that is a result of home working, of people not wanting to go into city centres or of the general landscape, but, anecdotally, we know that there is significant reduced footfall for these venues.

Do members have any other questions for our witnesses today?

I have one brief question. Professor Petersen said businesses should allow the use of lateral flow tests or a proof of a negative test. My only concern about that is how do you stop people cheating?

That is a good question. At the moment, the system in the UK is that people self-test. You could continue with that or you could decide to have test centres operating for that purpose. You could have a two-pronged approach, whereby people could continue to test at home but, if they wanted proof of a negative lateral flow test, they would have to go to a test centre to have it performed. Alternatively, you could say that you will trust people and let them submit a photograph of the lateral flow test for approval. There are different options to choose from.

Thank you. I thank all the witnesses for their evidence and for giving us their time. If witnesses would like to raise any further evidence with the committee, they can do so in writing. The clerks will be happy to liaise with you about how to do that.

10:16 Meeting suspended.  

10:25 On resuming—