Meeting date: Wednesday, September 29, 2021
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 29 September 2021
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Covid-19 Vaccination Certification Scheme, Legal Right to Recovery, Points of Order, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Poverty (Purchase of School Uniforms)
- Portfolio Question Time
- Covid-19 Vaccination Certification Scheme
- Legal Right to Recovery
- Points of Order
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Poverty (Purchase of School Uniforms)
Covid-19 Vaccination Certification Scheme
The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-01415, in the name of Douglas Ross, on halting the Covid-19 vaccination certification scheme. I invite members who wish to participate in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now or as soon as possible or, if they are joining us remotely, to put R in the chat function.14:49
I move the motion in my name, which is a single-sentence motion that calls on the Parliament not to proceed with the plans that were decided on and determined by the Scottish National Party coalition Government to introduce vaccination passports in a little under 48 hours’ time. This is a final opportunity for the Parliament to have its say. It is not the first opportunity that we have had to do so—we had a vote on the issue on 9 September. Then, the Conservatives led the opposition to the proposal and we were joined by the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats.
In that debate, the real subject matter that many members focused on was the definition of a nightclub. If we thought back then, earlier this month, that the definition of a nightclub would be the only issue to come out of the proposals, we were wrong; so many other issues have now been raised.
I will focus on the definition of a nightclub, because—
Will the member give way?
I will in one moment, Mr Mason.
At that time, John Swinney, as the member responsible for the legislation, could not define a nightclub. In the same debate, his MSPs were googling the definition of a nightclub. Now that it has been established what the Scottish Government believes a nightclub to be in terms of this legislation, we know from the hospitality industry that the impact will be far more wide ranging than anyone expected. Indeed, thousands of additional premises will now be subject to the legislation, if it is passed by the Parliament.
Does Douglas Ross accept that, over those weeks, a very sensible agreement and definition have been reached? Rather than using the word “nightclub”, it is a time-based definition.
No. I do not agree with that one bit. I also do not agree that the Government has used that time to constructively listen to the concerns of businesses. The First Minister said yesterday that she is listening to the concerns of the industries and businesses. However, you do not listen if you do not take on board their legitimate concerns. Those industries are taking the Deputy First Minister and this SNP-Green coalition Government to court at the end of this week to try and stop these proposals, such is the damage that they are expected to cause.
Countless people, such as Gavin Stevenson from the Night Time Industries Association, have warned that the nightclub definition—which John Mason now wants us to celebrate—will affect thousands of additional properties. Colin Wilkinson, managing director of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, said that the proposals are:
“a most unwelcome development for the licensed trade in general.”
The Scottish Beer and Pub Association said that:
“It goes far beyond what any reasonable person would consider to be a nightclub and could capture many pubs and bars.”
It is not just the industries affected who are raising concerns; it is also Judith Robertson from the Scottish Human Rights Commission. She said that the case for vaccination passports has not been made. She said that to the COVID-19 Recovery Committee of this Parliament less than a week ago. She is urging ministers to listen to the Scottish Human Rights Commission when it says that the case for vaccination passports has not been made.
If ministers will not listen to business, the sectors affected, or the Scottish Human Rights Commission, will they listen to themselves? Will they listen to Humza Yousaf, who admitted that he had
“ethical, clinical and human rights concerns”—[Official Report, 26 May 2021; c 7.]
about vaccination passports and who said that he was “instinctively quite sceptical” about the use of vaccination passports for clubs?
Will they listen to John Swinney, who previously said that he was against the use of Covid passports to deal with the situation that we have in front of us, or to their coalition partners such as Patrick Harvie, who said that the lack of detail and confusion over vaccination passports could spread misinformation and further the anti-vaxxer cause? That is the same Patrick Harvie who said that the vaccination passport scheme raises concerns about equality issues. Why are the SNP and the Greens refusing to listen to anyone who takes the counter view?
The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care (Humza Yousaf) rose—
I will give way to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care if he can explain why he previously felt that the proposals were surrounded by
“ethical, clinical and human rights concerns”—[Official Report, 26 May 2021; c 7.].
and why, if he was “instinctively quite sceptical” of these plans, he is no longer so.
I am happy to. As I will say in my remarks, it is because we have managed a workaround in relation to some of those ethical considerations.
I wonder whether the one group in society that Douglas Ross has not mentioned—and to whom he is not listening—is listening to him. Those are the public health experts: the same public health experts who are no doubt informing the United Kingdom Government, which has a Covid certification scheme in its winter contingency plan. What does he say to those public health experts who say that this scheme can help to reduce transmission?
Of course, the public health experts are not unanimous on that. Stephen Reicher, who is often quoted by the SNP—
What about the clinicians?
I am sorry, Presiding Officer, but if the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care in an SNP Government does not want to listen to what Professor Stephen Reicher is saying, he should tell the First Minister, because she often quotes him.
Of course, they cannot quote him when he is taking an opposing view from that of this SNP Government. They do not want to hear that opposition—they do not want to listen. They know that they have votes sewn up in the chamber. They can ignore the Scottish Parliament and this debating chamber, but they cannot ignore the voices of business and the voices of the public, who are raising serious concerns about these issues.
Mr Ross said that we were ignoring the wishes of the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament has voted for the scheme—he said that himself a minute ago.
I was saying that they can ignore whatever this Parliament says. [Interruption.] I will explain. This Parliament is not just the SNP and the Greens. Scotland is not just the SNP and the Greens. There are 129 voices in this chamber.
John Swinney rose—
No, sit down, please, Mr Swinney. [Interruption.] Mr Swinney! Sit down and I will give way.
Although the SNP does not want to hear the voices of the Conservatives, Labour or the Liberal Democrats, it cannot ignore the voices of many people across Scotland who have said that their plans are deeply flawed.
If I can have another minute, I will give way to the Deputy First Minister.
I am grateful to Mr Ross for giving way a second time. He obviously believes in the principle of parliamentary majorities being able to determine the outcome of parliamentary votes, because he has used his vote in the House of Commons to ensure that there is a cut in universal credit for the most vulnerable families in our country. That is what Mr Ross uses his majority to deliver for the poor in our country.
I will work through those points. First, there has not been a vote on the universal credit issue. If John Swinney is aware of it, he should perhaps look at Hansard, from which he will find that there has never been a vote on that issue in the UK Parliament. Secondly, we are discussing vaccination passports. What does it say about the SNP member in charge of the legislation that he does not want to look at its difficulties or flaws but wants to talk about universal credit? We had a long debate about that yesterday.
Let us have a debate about what his party is doing to the night-time industry, the hospitality industry and the people across Scotland by introducing the scheme, which is ill thought out and will be in force, but not enforced. It is a shambolic scheme—[Interruption.] No, I am in my final minute. To use that great Scottish word, it is a bourach, and the hands of the Deputy First Minister and the First Minister are all over it.
We know that in the next few days, after the scheme is implemented at 5 am on Friday, there will be countless problems. I do not celebrate that, but the Government has been warned about it. I hope that on this final opportunity today, some SNP and Green members might see the light and see the difficulty that their scheme is going to cause, and vote against it. Certainly, by supporting the Conservative motion today, we can stop this shambles of a scheme coming into effect in a little under 48 hours’ time.
I do not think that you have moved the motion.
In fairness, I moved it in my first sentence, but belt and braces.
That the Parliament calls on the Scottish Government not to proceed with its plans to introduce a COVID-19 vaccine certification scheme.
Excellent. Belt and braces are always good.
I call Humza Yousaf to speak to and move amendment S6M-01415.2.14:58
The Scottish Government opposes the motion in the name of Douglas Ross. As the First Minister said yesterday, the Scottish Government maintains the position that the implementation of a mandatory domestic certification scheme is proportionate and appropriate at this point in the pandemic. That is not just our view; it is the view of the Labour-led Government in Wales, and the certification scheme is, of course, part of the UK Government’s contingency planning.
Recent data has been a stark reminder of the challenges that we face as a nation. Although parties will have disagreements about the certification scheme, all of us can agree that we have a challenging number of weeks ahead and that we continue to face challenges despite the positive uptake rates in the vaccination process. A particular challenge is the number of deaths and the impact that the virus has had on many families across the country—something that I know weighs heavily on the minds of the Government, as I suspect it does for every member in the chamber. Although case numbers are declining, they are still at a high level and the pressure on our health and care system remains significant.
We cannot be complacent. In September, we have reported that 461 people who tested positive for Covid-19 have lost their lives. That is 461 families and their communities completely devastated by the virus in the past month alone. However, that also highlights the importance of the vaccine to how we progress through the pandemic. We continue to see exceptionally high uptake of the vaccine, and the downward trajectory of cases points to the vaccine having an impact.
I absolutely agree that vaccination is our route out of this, but vaccination passports are not. Does the cabinet secretary acknowledge that, at a festival in Cornwall at which vaccination passports were required on entry, 5,000 people still caught Covid-19? Passports are not a barrier to transmission.
As the First Minister said in response to the exact same question from Alex Cole-Hamilton yesterday, I think, we are not saying that vaccination completely severs the link between positive cases and hospitalisation but that it reduces that link. It also reduces the likelihood of transmission of the virus.
Does the cabinet secretary accept that there is a difference between the effect of vaccination at the population level and its impact in a venue or at an event? The dynamics are very different.
Yes, but I will come on to why we think that a certification scheme can have a positive impact in particularly high-risk settings. My remarks support what Daniel Johnson said: vaccination remains the single most important thing that any of us can do to help to keep cases under control.
That is why we hope that the introduction of the certification scheme will help to increase vaccination uptake. Although daily vaccination figures fluctuate, we saw—[Interruption.] I ask the member to give me a moment to make a little progress.
Although daily vaccination figures are variable, in the first five days after the announcement of the certification scheme there was an increase in the uptake of first doses, which peaked on day 4 with an 80 per cent increase compared with the uptake on the day of the announcement. Significant uptake of a first dose of the vaccine was also noted in the 16 to 17-year-old age group immediately after we announced our intention to introduce such a scheme.
Three weeks ago, John Swinney told the COVID-19 Recovery Committee that he would provide the evidence behind the introduction of vaccination passports. Last week, the First Minister said that she would deliver the evidence within a couple of days. The committee’s evidence suggests that the lowest uptake of Covid vaccination is among ethnic minorities and in the lowest Scottish index of multiple deprivation areas. What evidence has the Scottish Government considered that suggests that the passport scheme will make an impact on vaccination uptake in those groups?
Even before the announcement of a certification scheme, we were working hard with organisations such as BEMIS Scotland and the Council of Ethnic Minority Voluntary Sector Organisations, as well as with faith groups and leaders, to increase uptake in ethnic minority groups. We know that vaccination uptake rates are lowest in our Polish and African communities, so there has been proactive engagement and initiatives to ensure that their uptake rates increase.
There have been considerable efforts on the part of businesses and individuals to step up compliance with the mitigation measures that remain in place. [Interruption.] I will not take another intervention. I hope that the member will forgive me, but I want to make progress. I have taken four or five interventions, and I suspect that I do not have much time left.
In line with our strategic intent to suppress the virus to a level that is consistent with alleviating its harms while we recover and rebuild for a better future—that is our stated intent—the Covid vaccination certification scheme will allow us to meet the following aims. It will reduce the risk of transmission. It will reduce the risk of serious illness and death and, in so doing, alleviate pressure on our healthcare system. It will allow high-risk settings to continue to operate, as an alternative to closure or more restrictive measures. It will also, we hope, increase vaccination uptake. [Interruption.] If the member will forgive me, I want to make a little more progress.
Brian Whittle mentioned research. The vaccine effectiveness expert panel—VEEP—which fed its consensus view into the scientific advisory group for emergencies on 9 September, considered a wide range of domestic and international data and found that vaccines are around 65 to 85 per cent effective against infection. As a result, certification provides a targeted and proportionate means of reducing risk while maximising our ability to keep open certain settings and events at which there is a higher risk of transmission. [Interruption.] A number of members are grumbling, but that is the scientific evidence that is feeding into SAGE. [Interruption.] If the member will forgive me, I probably have only about a minute left.
Cabinet secretary, you must come to a conclusion.
We have listened to a range of stakeholders—in closing, my colleague the Deputy First Minister will, no doubt, give further detail in that regard. Indeed, following the announcement that was made by the First Minister yesterday, the fact that we will implement the scheme on Friday but will not seek to enforce the measures until 18 October is an example of a Government having listened to and engaged with business.
Regarding the parliamentary vote on the issue, it sometimes suits the Opposition to claim that the Government does not listen to the Parliament, but, when we do listen to the Parliament, Opposition members suddenly seem to be on the other side of the fence.
We have come a long way in recent months. Our economy is open, restrictions have been lifted, by and large, and there is a relative return to normality. Partnership has been key to that, and I ask businesses and individuals to continue with this endeavour in the coming weeks to ensure that we do everything we absolutely can collectively to recover from the ill effects of the pandemic.
In the face of the delta variant, which we know is far more transmissible than other variants, we cannot afford to sit still. This Government will always take the right decisions, even if they are the tough ones—backed by clinical and public health advice—in order to keep the people of Scotland safe.
I move amendment S6M-01415.2, in the name of the Deputy First Minister, to leave out from “calls” to end and insert:
“commends the extraordinary effort of vaccination teams throughout Scotland, which means that, as of 24 September 2021, 86% of eligible over-18-year-olds were double-vaccinated against COVID-19; recognises that case numbers remain too high and that action is needed from all sectors to ensure that baseline COVID-19 measures are rigorously implemented; acknowledges that a number of other countries have introduced COVID-19 certification schemes, that the Welsh Government has plans to introduce a vaccine certification scheme in Wales, and that it is part of winter contingency planning by the UK Government for England; believes that, in line with the Scottish Government’s strategic intent, a COVID-19 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, including those who may be vaccine hesitant, to get vaccinated; recognises that the Parliament has already endorsed a certification scheme; supports the implementation of a COVID-19 vaccine certification scheme; agrees that the scheme will apply to late night venues between the hours of 00:00 and 05:00 with music, alcohol and dancing, 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 review.”
I advise members that we have very little time in hand—in fact, no time at all—so any interventions will have to be accommodated within the allocated speech times.15:06
Let us be clear. Yesterday’s announcement by the First Minister was an admission that the Scottish Government’s vaccination passport policy is flawed, rushed and potentially damaging to jobs and businesses. You do not announce a delay to a law 72 hours before it comes into force when it is well prepared and thought through. You do not delay it because it is straightforward to implement. You do not push it back when those who are tasked with enforcing it are well prepared.
The vaccination certification plan is being delayed because it is flawed, and it is flawed because it is lacking in three key ways. First, the evidence base is lacking:
“the impact ... on ... transmission is uncertain”.
That is stated in the first line of our amendment, and those are not my words but the words of SAGE. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care should be very careful in citing scientific evidence at population-level efficacy and applying it to high-contact venues and situations. The dynamics are very different, and it is a very dangerous thing to do.
Does the member agree with me that the inability of the Deputy First Minister and the First Minister to bring evidence into the public domain shows that they are now scrambling around to get some evidence after the fact?
I completely agree, and I thank the member for that intervention.
The second issue is that the detail is lacking. The Government singled out nightclubs but then realised that it had no way of identifying them legally. The definition that has been cobbled together means that any pub or restaurant that is open at 1 minute past midnight suddenly becomes a nightclub if patrons start to dance. The answer, according to the official guidance, which was published yesterday, is that those venues should switch their music off. With a flick of a switch, a venue turns from a nightclub back into a pub. I hope that someone tells the virus that it is allowed to transmit itself in a busy bar only when the music is playing. [Interruption.] The cabinet secretary says, from a sedentary position, that that is a ridiculous suggestion, but that is exactly the effect of what the guidance says. If staff switch the music off, they no longer have to check people’s vaccination status. That is what the Government’s own advice says.
Thirdly, communication is lacking. Bar, restaurant and club owners feel ambushed. For months, the Government was saying that it had no plans to introduce vaccination passports. In July, Humza Yousaf said that he was “sceptical”, and John Swinney described them as the “wrong way” to go. In the space of four weeks, the Government has gone from not having plans for vaccination passports to rushing them through and then having to delay their start because of the inevitable backlash, because they are unworkable. The situation is a mess. Is it any wonder that those in the hospitality sector feel dismayed?
Ministers claim that they have been consulting, but appearing on a Zoom call is not consultation, and speaking to people and telling them what is going to happen is not consultation. Carrying on regardless and not listening to issues, suggestions, questions or concerns is not consultation. Consultation is not a one-way street. If it had been done at all, the Government would not be in the mess that it is in today. Ministers have to listen.
I have been listening to people in the sector, and they feel angry and betrayed. This is what I have heard:
“This wouldn’t matter whether it was being implemented this Friday or Good Friday, because unless we solve the issues around recruitment this is an absolute non-starter at any time or date.”
“This scheme will result in business failures and bankruptcies.”
“As an experienced operator, I like to think of myself as a fairly sharp guy, but there is sheer confusion with this plan and there’s been no engagement with the sector. If there is a mist in the pulpit, then there will be fog in the pews.”
“The cost of hiring door staff, which are in massive short supply anyway, to enforce this will be more than the pre-Covid profits for many businesses.”
Those are not my words but those of business owners and those who represent the sector. They were speaking to me today on a Zoom call because I wanted to hear their point of view. They just want ministers to listen, too. [Interruption.]
Could those on the front benches stop yelling at each other, please?
The last time I checked, consultation required listening. All that I am saying is that the Government should listen to those points of view, because it is quite clear, according to its own plans, that it has not been doing that.
When it comes to suppressing the virus, we know what works: testing, contact tracing and getting people vaccinated. The Scottish Government has to redouble its efforts and improve the systems that it has already, not invent new ones. We should resource test and protect properly so that it meets World Health Organization standards. We need to chase down the groups that remain to get vaccinated by making it as easy as possible, through measures such as mobile vaccination centres, providing people absolutely no reason not to get vaccinated.
If ministers were being honest, they would acknowledge that the policy has been rushed. If they were being frank, they would acknowledge that it lacks the rationale, planning or communication to be effective.
You need to wind up now, Mr Johnson.
Ministers know that this is a knee-jerk response that they have been sent down from the ministerial tower by the First Minister to implement and try to justify. It has been botched, and that is why it should be scrapped.
I move amendment S6M-01415.1, to insert at end:
“; recognises that the impact of certification on behaviours that reduce transmission is uncertain according to SAGE; notes that the scheme does not include proof of a negative test as an alternative to certification; raises concern about the inadequate consultation, published detail or lack of support for the sectors impacted by the introduction of vaccine certification; regrets that contact tracing in Scotland has repeatedly missed the World Health Organization’s standard of tracing 80% of close contacts within 72 hours, and calls on the Scottish Government to focus on urgently resourcing Test and Protect and increasing vaccine uptake by improving access to vaccination clinics.”15:11
I thank the Scottish Conservative Party for lodging the motion. It will come as no surprise to colleagues that I and my party will vote this evening to abandon the Covid vaccination certification scheme. My party’s misgivings about the prospect of Covid identification cards—which they are, in all but name—are a matter of public record, and we are being proved right every passing day. They are illiberal, they are discriminatory and they might even breach people’s human rights.
On top of all that, they are utterly ineffective at protecting people from virus transmission. The evidence from the Boardmasters festival in Cornwall is testament to that. After showing proof of vaccination as a requirement for entry, 10 per cent of attendees at that event—5,000 people—contracted Covid 19. That offers proof, if any were needed, that the scheme offers no barrier to the spread of coronavirus.
There were 5,000 people who were infected after having been double vaccinated and after having passed a lateral flow test. If 2,500 of them had not been vaccinated, how many would have ended up in hospital with long Covid, or even worse, dead?
I absolutely agree that the vaccine is our route out of the pandemic, but complex arithmetic from Mr Fairlie will not get around the fact that the scheme is utterly illiberal and shows no efficacy in stopping spread of the virus.
We have from the outset made clear our opposition to the scheme. I am proud that the Liberal Democrats are the only party in the United Kingdom that has consistently and stubbornly opposed the assault on the right to medical privacy that Covid 19 ID cards represent. People are worried about what the scheme will mean for Scotland in principle and in practice. As we have heard, the night-time industry is in uproar, and rightly so. It is being treated with contempt by this Government, so its decision to launch legal action against the Government should come as no surprise.
However, that is not the only challenge that the Government has failed to address. Last week, I wrote to the Scottish Human Rights Commission asking it to begin a statutory inquiry into whether the plans intrude on people’s human rights. The commissioner of that body, Judith Robertson, told Parliament’s COVID-19 Recovery Committee that human rights that are defined in law can be set aside only if doing so is a direct means of addressing a pressing social need. However, the Government has singularly failed to provide an evidential base for meeting that test, so concerns remain. The fact that the SNP and the Greens plan to push on regardless shows disregard for the rights-based approach that should characterise everything that we do in Parliament.
The illiberal Covid ID cards will lead to a disproportionate number of ethnic minority Scots, young people and people from the most deprived areas being systematically excluded from public events and spaces.
I know that the Government will not admit defeat on the scheme because it is now in too deep, but the Scottish Green Party might not be, so I urge its members when they vote today to think again about those human rights concerns. The Scottish Greens have the power to act as midwife or executioner for the policy, this afternoon. They can do the right thing, and prove that they are still a party of dependable principles, or they can surrender those principles as part payment for the scraps from the Cabinet table. I say that to the Greens as somebody who has watched his party learn the hard way that voting against the principles on which it was elected does not end well.
In May this year, the Scottish Green Party asked voters this question: do you want more of the same, or will you vote as though your future depends on it? This afternoon, I put the same question to the Greens. Will they fall into line with a Government whip that will redraw the lines of personal liberty in this country, perhaps irreversibly, or will they vote as though the future of personal liberty depends on it?
There is no guaranteed end date for the Covid ID card scheme—it is wide open to extension. There is no guarantee that in five months members will not all need to present a Covid ID card just to enter the chamber, and there is no evidence that it will do anything to reduce the inequality that some of the country’s most vulnerable groups already face. For those reasons, and more besides, the Liberal Democrats will proudly back the motion tonight.15:16
I begin by acknowledging the very difficult job that confronts the Government on the issue—first, because it is often necessary to take quick decisions in response to a virus that shows absolutely no concern whatsoever for the pressures that are placed on the economy or on society, and secondly, because it is not easy to balance health concerns against the needs of the economy and society’s wellbeing. However, what is absolutely crucial, whatever is decided, is the need to earn public trust, and therefore consent, when it comes to ensuring that the public will adhere to the necessary guidelines with a responsible approach.
I will reflect on that, given what the business community has been saying. The First Minister reminded us yesterday that we should all be united in our aim to tackle this awful disease and to minimise the risks that are associated with it by controlling situations in which there is likely to be a risk of increased transmission.
Businesses agree with that, but they make the point—quite rightly—that the precise aims of measures must be clear. In the case of vaccination passports, there would have to be supportive and compelling evidence that their introduction would, first, be clearly understood; that it would, secondly, be accepted by the public as the right measure; and that it would, thirdly, be backed up with the necessary resources to secure effective implementation.
Those are perfectly fair questions to ask—most especially of an SNP Government that yesterday shifted the goalposts again. The First Minister claimed that that shift, to allow for a grace period up to 18 October, was made precisely because the Scottish Government had been listening to business. However, the fact of the matter is that the business community is saying exactly the same now as it has been saying for weeks, which is that vaccination passports are not the answer.
Scrutiny of proposals is critical not only in order to foster public awareness and understanding but—which is most important—to produce a cogent case with evidence for how an initiative will work.
Will the member give way?
If Mr Mason does not mind, I will not give way on this occasion.
On vaccination passports, however, which we debated earlier in the month, there was no time whatsoever for adequate scrutiny—not least because the Scottish Government admitted that it was still in the process of collecting the necessary evidence, which was a concern that the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee raised. In that debate, on 9 September, my colleague Murdo Fraser rightly set out that, although some parties in the chamber have—as Mr Cole-Hamilton just said—a long-standing opposition to any form of ID policy, the Scottish Conservatives could, on a pragmatic basis, say that there might be a case for vaccination passports on a very short-term basis, but only if there was proven evidence that they could be beneficial in the war against Covid. That case has never been made, however, and worse still is that it has never been scrutinised.
That is why the business community has been so quick to express its concerns about several key issues, including how QR codes would be read, policing costs, whether vaccination passports work better than negative lateral flow tests, for how long vaccination passports would be necessary and whether they would perpetuate inequalities.
There is a legal challenge because of all the unanswered questions. Two members have outlined what the hospitality and night-time industries are saying about that. It is absolutely imperative that we listen, because there are serious concerns—not just about workability, but about the potential legal challenge. Of course, yesterday, the First Minister had finally to acknowledge the deep-seated concerns, but all she has done is muddy the waters even more.
The real problems are the policy inconsistencies, the legal issues and the lack of on-going evidence, so we call on the SNP-Green coalition—half of which is fundamentally opposed to vaccination passports—to halt the programme.15:20
We are all clear that any Government has a duty to act in the general public health interest. That invariably means balancing seemingly conflicting interests for the greater good. The entire pandemic has been characterised by that challenge, and we have all accepted, in recognition of our obligations, temporary abeyance of some of our rights. It appears that there is, after all, such a thing as society.
The wonder that is vaccination has been a success that has led to fewer deaths and limited poor health outcomes. Its efficacy is better than it was originally thought it would be, and the booster programme is now being rolled out. Take-up is high; I am pleased to say that the level of take-up among younger people is encouraging. It is true that vaccination certificates might affect younger people more, but the vaccination certification approach might encourage take-up among them, as they realise that their desire to go clubbing outweighs their hesitancy.
I am grateful to Michelle Thomson for giving way.
At the start of her remarks, Michelle Thomson said that “abeyance of ... rights” is necessary at a time of emergency. Does she recognise that that is acceptable only when an evidential base is presented for why that is necessary? Does she recognise such a base has not been presented?
Thank you. I will come to the matter of rights at the end of my speech.
Many of us are pandemic weary, yet we recognise that proportionate actions based on assessment of risk can allow resumption of some activities. Nobody today so far has mentioned the number of Governments around the world that have developed similar schemes—the entire European Union, with its Covid digital certification, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein. Such schemes are in widespread use in Austria, France, Germany, Israel, Italy and so on. Northern Ireland and Wales are considering a similar move, and even the United Kingdom Prime Minister has stated that it is not sensible to rule out the option now, when we must face the fact that it might make the difference between businesses being open at full capacity and not being open at full capacity. [Interruption.] I will be very interested to see how Douglas Ross will vote if the issue comes to his other chamber. [Interruption.] I will carry on, because I am limited in time.
Last night new guidance was published that allows for a staged approach.
Will the member give way?
I will happily give way. Will Douglas Ross vote against any such scheme when his Tory masters bring it forward in Westminster?
I am grateful to Michelle Thomson for finally giving way. I have been very clear that I am against Covid vaccination passports. That cannot be clearer.
The member just mentioned all the countries that have introduced vaccination passports and the experience from those countries, so why did it take her Government so long to define “nightclub”? Why, for many people, is the definition so confusing that it will take in many extra premises?
Be brief, Mr Ross.
Why are we in the situation in which the scheme cannot be enforced for another two weeks?
Douglas Ross is confusing two things. There might be a case to make for policies evolving, but we are talking about the principle of vaccination certification, so I asked him how he will vote. [Interruption.] I must make progress.
Business has been listened to, so more time has been allowed in the form of a grace period. That has to be recognised. The scheme will not take legal effect until 18 October, which will allow businesses and other key stakeholders time to plan. To suggest that business cannot fathom a way out of a set of circumstances that it has continually managed to work its way through, when doing so has been very difficult, is utterly patronising to business.
Flexible adaptation is the key. If we have learned one thing through the course of the pandemic, it is that what science suggests is the best solution at the time often requires to be rethought. Knowing that there will inevitably be change is not a rational reason to do nothing.
Balancing protection with a resumption of public life and a secure trading environment for business is what certification will bring.
I will leave members with a few final thoughts.
Very few, please.
The first relates to the tension between our personal privacy and our civic duty, combined with general concerns about use of data, which the pandemic will accentuate. Perceptions of how data will be managed are based on the level of trust between citizens and Government. The level of trust in the Scottish Government and the First Minister is extremely high, whereas trust in the UK Prime Minister is extremely low.15:25
Yesterday, the First Minister accepted what everybody already knew but she had steadfastly refused to accept. Having announced that the vaccination certification scheme policy would begin this week, the Scottish Government was completely unprepared for its implementation. Such an outcome was a long time in the making due to the culmination of a lack of meaningful engagement, the design of a policy without reference to those who would have to enforce it on the ground, and an arrogant dismissal of genuine concerns.
If it seems as though there is a lack of joined-up thinking in the Scottish Government’s approach, that is because there is. First, we had the hasty reversal of the Deputy First Minister’s position that vaccination passports were
“the wrong way to go”.
We had a policy announcement that was so confused that it led members in the chamber to resort to googling the definition of a nightclub on their mobile phones. Indications that certification would roll out with new age demographics—16 and 17-year-olds and potentially 12 to 15-year-olds—were reversed. We have now ended up with a situation in which guidance for businesses was only issued on Tuesday evening for a policy that they are supposed to put in place on Friday. Guidance for the general public and a marketing campaign to raise awareness are, it seems, still in the works.
If the SNP’s U-turns are not enough, we need only look to its partners, the Greens. Patrick Harvie once told us:
“the more I think about this notion of vaccine passports or vaccine certificates, the more concerned I am about it”.
It appears that thinking ends where ministerial office begins.
Over the past 18 months, the Scottish people have endured a number of restrictions to their lives. With remarkable generosity, they have faced contradictions and inconsistencies in this Government’s response. However, the scheme that ministers have outlined is categorically different from what has gone before. It should have been introduced only with detailed thought and sober reflection. Sadly, we have had none of that.
The First Minister has continually presented the alternative to vaccination certification as being the threat of businesses having to close again. We are currently in a period in which cases are dropping. Can businesses and other organisations have any confidence that, should that trend reverse, they will not be met with closure anyway?
That is not the only question that ministers have to answer, and I hope that the cabinet secretary will also address the following issues when he sums up. The Scottish Government is developing an approval process for medical exemption, which will apparently be published ahead of implementation on Friday. Has it developed that process? What guidance have businesses been given on that? Will the exemption be included on the NHS app?
Can the Scottish Government say with confidence that problems for individuals—for example, for those who received their first vaccination in one jurisdiction and their second in another—have been resolved? Can the Scottish Government point to any evidence that venues with people dancing and alcohol that close at midnight will have less effect on the spread of the airborne virus than those that are open for an additional hour? Finally, can ministers truthfully say, as their guidance states, that a large-scale events business will be able to
“refresh policies and organise training for staff”
before Friday based on guidance that was issued only on Tuesday afternoon?
There are many, many more problems with the proposals than those that I have set out. For one thing, the Scottish Government’s amendment mentions tackling vaccine hesitancy, despite the First Minister telling Parliament that
“Uptake rates across all groups in society are high—much higher than we anticipated at the start of the programme.”—[Official Report, 21 September 2021; c 23.]
I draw members’ attention to the words of Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery, who told a committee of this Parliament that the same groups
“might respond with increasing distrust of the vaccine programme, and Government advice, because they feel that they have been coerced.”—[Official Report, COVID-19 Recovery Committee, 23 September 2021; c 7.]
The reality is precisely that it is a gamble—[Interruption.]
The member cannot take an intervention, because he is winding up.
The reality is precisely that it is a gamble, and one that might put vaccination efforts further back.
As was the case before the levels system, the Scottish Government is applying a blanket policy across Scotland regardless of local circumstances and prevalence of the virus. Despite its U-turns, it is implementing an impractical and ill-considered set of proposals that may have negative effects—
You need to finish, Mr Halcro Johnston.
The proposals are in themselves dangerous to public health and a threat to business. I urge the Government to go further than it did yesterday and drop the plans.
I call Martin Whitfield, to be followed by Paul McLennan. You have a tight four minutes.15:29
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate on the important matter of vaccination passports or certificates. It is interesting that the Scottish Government has admitted on a number of occasions that one of the purposes of the scheme is to drive up the vaccination rate. Presumably, it is intended to do that in a certain group of people. It is important that we win the argument on vaccination, but vaccines should be taken because they protect people and those around them, not to allow people to get into a nightclub. It is important that we do not entrench hesitancy, which is what I fear vaccination passports will result in.
We have seen the stick if people do not get the vaccine, but where is the carrot from this Government? Where is the improved roll-out of places to get vaccinated? Where is the reaching out into our schools, universities and areas with higher poverty rates to try to extend uptake? That should have been done first and it should have been heralded and really pushed. It is important because, if we can achieve that, the bit of paper or the app—both of which Covid will ignore—will not be necessary.
Scotland has the highest level of first-dose uptake in the UK, and we are a percentage point behind Wales, but ahead of Northern Ireland and England, on the uptake of second doses. Does that not confirm that we are doing everything that Martin Whitfield asks us to do in relation to schools, universities and so on? However, in the fight against a highly transmissible variant, we must do more—
I call Mr Whitfield.
—and that is why certification is important.
Then why do we need vaccination passports?
To do more.
Oh—to do more.
My second point is about those who cannot get vaccinated. I am grateful to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care for talking this morning about support for those who fear the vaccine and those who have had negative experiences, and how they might get a second dose safely. However, I ask the cabinet secretary—I am happy to take an intervention from him and for that to come out of my speaking time, Presiding Officer—whether anaphylactic shock is a good medical reason for someone not to be vaccinated by Friday. I hope that I can get a yes or no response.
As I referenced earlier in my answers during portfolio questions on health and social care, some people who have suffered anaphylactic shock after their first dose are able to safely complete their second dose. Those people who the health board has identified as unable to complete the vaccination process safely will receive an exemption letter by Friday.
I am grateful for that—indeed, it answers my next question, which was about what form such notification would take. I note that those people will receive a letter on Friday morning that will allow them to go to a birthday party in a nightclub that evening. However, will the notification appear on the app? Most night-time institutions seem to be organising themselves around the app, rather than the paper version.
My next question is on a matter that I was asked about just a few minutes ago. Could a breach by a licensee before 18 October be used as evidence with regard to their drinks licence even though the measure will not become enforceable until 18 October?
My final question is about the many people in society with disabilities. Where is the equality impact assessment of the scheme? That was promised by 23 September, but it has still not been published. It is vital to those people who are struggling mentally with regard to going out and rejoining society. More important, where is the work that has been done to show how the scheme will affect some of the most vulnerable people in our society?15:33
As of today, we are still averaging 2,500 to 3,000 cases of Covid per day, which is 15,000 to 20,000 cases per week. As the First Minister said yesterday, that is still too high for comfort. As the vaccination effort continues, we must balance the interests of public health and the need to keep businesses open. This is not just about the here and now; it is about preparing for the long nights of winter. As of today, we have 1,020 people in hospital, with 71 in intensive care. In the past seven days, we have seen 183 deaths. We have seen on several occasions that the virus can grow exponentially if it is given the opportunity to do so.
I could understand the Opposition parties’ arguments if Scotland was engaging in a process that had not been implemented throughout most of Europe, as Michelle Thomson mentioned. However, Covid certification has been introduced by several Governments of different political persuasions in countries across Europe, and the measures that many of them have taken go much further than those that are proposed by the Scottish Government.
First, I say to the member that they did not introduce them in the way that the SNP is introducing them in Scotland. Secondly, what is the assessed economic impact on the businesses that will be most directly impacted by the measure?
Each country has brought in certificate schemes that suit its circumstances, and that is what the Scottish Government is doing.
The Netherlands relaxed social distancing rules for nightclubs on 26 June, and they had to close. They are now being reopened with certification. In Austria, Belgium, Denmark and France, certification is required when attendance at an event reaches a certain threshold. In Israel, Norway and the Netherlands, capacity limits are in place for events with certification. Is the Opposition seriously telling us that most of Europe is getting its approach wrong?
The member listed a range of countries that have had ID cards in their societies for a long time, as well as constitutional protections around their use. Does he recognise that we have no such protections?
We are not talking about ID cards. I respect the member’s view on that issue, but this is not about ID cards.
The schemes in Europe have seen increases in the take-up of vaccination, including by those who might be vaccine hesitant. We have seen examples of that—[Interruption.]
I will not take another intervention. I have already taken two and I have only four minutes.
The Welsh Government will be implementing a vaccination certification scheme in Wales. Is that wrong, too? We also know that the UK Government has not discounted such a scheme as part of its winter contingency plan.
On 9 September, this Parliament voted for the Covid passport scheme. The Tories said at the time that the Scottish Government was not listening to business. Three weeks later, the Tories are trying to disregard a vote that was taken only 20 days ago—[Interruption.]
I will not give way. I have accepted two interventions and I am in my final minute.
The Scottish Government has used that time to engage with business and produce updated guidelines. It is being pragmatic in its implementation, and that engagement will continue. The new, staged approach that the Scottish Government proposes is designed to help businesses to adapt to the requirements that the scheme will place on them and to give them a period in which they can operationalise and test their arrangements in practice.
A prime example of that engagement was with the Scottish Professional Football League, which was raised in the debate three weeks ago. The SPFL has said:
“We warmly welcome the indications from the First Minister ... that spot checks look likely to form the basis of vaccine certification at major events ... There remain a number of aspects which require to be finalised but we are hopeful that our positive talks will bear fruit and that Scottish football will continue to play a prominent role in reducing the impact of the virus.”
A Covid-19 vaccination certification scheme will provide a targeted, proportionate means to ensure that Scotland can keep higher-risk settings open. The Scottish Government has said that the approach will be under constant review, and it will reduce the impact of transmission. The Scottish Government’s approach strikes the right balance. It meets public health objectives through a suite of measures that will allow business to stay open. I ask members to support the Government’s amendment.15:37
In the previous debate on the vaccination certification scheme, I made the point that, with Covid cases still too high and vaccination rates among some age groups slowing, we needed to take action. Although cases have fallen recently, the fact remains that our health and social care services are under enormous strain, and while the virus circulates at such high levels in a partially vaccinated population, the risks of variants and long Covid loom large.
We need to urgently drive up vaccination rates and suppress the virus but, with furlough ending, our options are limited. A return to lockdown measures would means job losses and economic turmoil. The scheme offers a solution to that problem by allowing us to take proportionate action without reintroducing restrictions.
I recognise that the scheme cannot work in isolation and that it must be part of a wider strategy. It is important that there are continued efforts to address vaccine hesitancy. There have been many harmful comments on social media about unvaccinated people being selfish or conspiracy theorists. We all know that there are some who maliciously spread misinformation about the vaccine, and they should rightly be condemned, as what they are doing is dangerous. However, we will get nowhere by similarly condemning or dismissing people who are anxious or frightened, or who just do not realise the danger posed to them by Covid because of the perpetuating narrative that only those who are older or have underlying health conditions get sick. People rarely respond well when they are shamed or browbeaten. We need to reassure and persuade those who are hesitant that the vaccine is safe and effective, and that it presents the way out of the pandemic.
I do not want to dismiss the moral and ethical concerns that members have raised about the certification scheme. I have said before in the chamber that I respect their position, and we should of course continue to pay close attention to those concerns. I know that the Government has worked hard to address issues such as digital exclusion. We must ensure that any actions that we take to tackle Covid are proportionate, and it is right that the scheme will be kept under review.
It has been pointed out that Scotland is not an outlier on the issue. The Government amendment refers to the recent announcement from the Welsh Government that, from 11 October, anyone over 18 will have to show either an NHS Covid pass to prove their vaccination status or a negative test result in order to enter nightclubs and attend certain events. As we heard from Paul McLennan, many other countries have introduced similar schemes. I recognise the point about adding a requirement to show a negative test, but I appreciate the current practical issues with that, which the Government has laid out. A vaccination certification scheme is part of the Conservative UK Government’s winter contingency planning.
The Tories’ hypocrisy on the issue is not surprising. Their obsession with putting economic growth before lives is apparent in this debate and in their complacent attitude towards other mitigations such as mask wearing. The Tory approach to tackling the pandemic has seen a removal of furlough, a cut to benefits and the opening up of international travel, when importing new variants could pose a risk to Scotland’s recovery from Covid.
In Scotland, we have to mitigate that recklessness by using the limited powers that we have, and now the Tories want to remove the safeguards that we can put in place. Any responsible Government has to do what it can to limit the spread of the virus using the powers that it has—[Interruption.] I am in my last minute.
It is clear that the Conservatives have no interest in such responsibilities. I therefore say to the Tories: instead of coming to the chamber with a one-line motion that seeks to put a halt to one of the few options that are open to us to drive up vaccination and lower transmission, why not come with suggestions for how, after the UK Government’s decision to end furlough, we suppress the virus? I challenge the Tories to go back to their colleagues at Westminster and argue for the extension to furlough to give us more options. The least they could do is attempt to offer some solutions.
You need to wind up now, Ms Mackay.
The reason why the Tories decide not to offer solutions is that they simply do not have any.15:42
I am happy to speak in favour of the Government amendment. Frankly, a lot of nonsense has been talked by members of Opposition parties about vaccination certificates. Most of those members have colleagues in similar parties across Europe—on the left, on the right and in the centre—who support such schemes. Scotland is very much in the European main stream in having such certificates. In many ways, the odd one out is England but, once again, we see a great fear among the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament of being different from our neighbour.
It has been claimed that the measure is being introduced too quickly, yet the reality is that most other measures to do with Covid came in with just two or three days’ notice. This time, we have had several weeks, including two debates in Parliament so, compared to other restrictions in the past 18 months, the one that we are discussing today has been one of the slowest to be implemented and one of the most consulted on.
Like me, Mr Mason is a member of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee. The measure is due to come in a day and a half from now. Has he seen the regulations yet that will bring in the detail of the policy, because I have not?
We have seen more detail on the policy and had more discussion on it than has been the case with any other restriction that has been put in place.
Tuesday’s figure of 1,027 people in hospital with Covid shows how serious the pandemic continues to be. It means that there are hundreds of extra patients in hospital and that hundreds of other people who should be in hospital for operations or whatever are being kept out by Covid.
Therefore, it seems clear that we cannot sit on our hands and do nothing; we have to take action. I suspect that we would be heavily criticised if we did nothing. Therefore, the key question is the one that Ms Mackay just asked. If we are not to have vaccination certificates, what action should we take? We have not heard many suggestions from Opposition parties this afternoon. [Interruption.] No, I will not give way—I will keep going just now.
Perhaps we should have a midnight curfew for all pubs and nightclubs. Perhaps that is what the Tories want. Maybe we should limit crowds at all events, including football matches, to 10,000 people. Those are the kind of measures that we would have to take if we were not to introduce certification. I accept that such restrictions across the board might be simpler and more straightforward to implement. Some might even say that that route would be fairer, as everyone would be treated the same—vaccinated or not. However, surely having blanket closures once again would be harsher, would damage more businesses more seriously and would spoil the lives of many people.
John Mason and I are members of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee, so we know the sections of society that are reluctant to get vaccinated. Does he not agree that the solution is to target those groups?
We need to encourage people who are reluctant to get vaccinated, but it appears that the majority of unvaccinated people have not been bothered or have not got round to getting vaccinated; they are not against the vaccine. We need to encourage those people, and the scheme is a carrot to do that.
We should learn from other countries’ experiences. At the end of May, Greece announced that a certification scheme would be implemented in July, and vaccination uptake jumped in June. After France announced that health passes would be introduced, 4 million people got their first jag and 6 million people made an appointment to get one. In Canada, the number of appointments for vaccination in Ontario and Quebec doubled after the Government’s passport announcement. Therefore, if one of the key aims of certification is to encourage uptake of jags, other countries’ experiences seem to be very encouraging.
Vaccines have been around for hundreds of years and are extremely safe. I have lost count of the number of vaccinations that I have had throughout my life, and I am very grateful for every one of them.15:46
This debate has shown that, although vaccination passports will be rolled out—or, rather, stuttered out—for large events and venues in Scotland in two days, Scotland is certainly not two days away from being ready.
Labour’s concerns have always been practical. They have always been about whether the scheme is the best measure to drive down the virus, or whether it will simply drive up the negative impact on sectors that have already been hammered, such as hospitality and events.
All of us support vaccination. Martin Whitfield stressed that point. We know that vaccination reduces the impact of the virus on our health and, therefore, the impact on our health service, but we also know that it does not stop people from getting the virus or passing it on to others. It is a fact that someone who is vaccinated and has a vaccination certificate could still be carrying Covid, could still be allowed into a late-night venue or large event and, therefore, could still be able to infect everyone else.
The Government’s emphasis on vaccination certification only is in danger of giving people a false sense of confidence. It is in danger of undermining the message that our best weapon against the spread of the virus, as the World Health Organization said 18 months ago, is to “test, test, test”. Sadly, the Government’s approach has never fully embraced the point that testing is the key, whether it was the shameful failure to roll out testing to social care staff earlier, the irresponsible rejection time and again of Labour’s calls to introduce testing at our airports to stop the import of the virus, or the fact that Scotland has repeatedly missed the WHO’s standard of tracing 80 per cent of close contacts within 72 hours. It has not been a case of test, test, test from the Government; it has been fail, fail, fail.
The failure to recognise testing can be seen in the SNP’s amendment and in the health secretary’s claim that the process is being replicated in Wales. That is simply not true. The First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, has consistently criticised the ethical, equality and practical problems of a proof of vaccination-only approach. To be frank, the health secretary used to believe that, too. Mark Drakeford has said that the Covid pass scheme
“is different from vaccine certification”,
because it allows proof of a negative Covid test for entry. That is very different from the vaccination certification scheme that the Scottish Government is proposing. If we are going to compare policies with those in other parts of the UK, let us have some honesty about what those policies are.
Let us also have some honesty from the Government when it comes to the economic impact on businesses. Time and again, ministers have promised that, when they introduce what they say are public health measures that hit businesses, they will provide extra support. Is the Government really saying that a vaccination passport scheme in which venues will need to not only check everyone who enters the premises from midnight but either check everyone who is already in the venue at that time or kick them out and tell them to queue up again will not have a negative impact on business?
The scheme will not affect only the 100 nightclubs in Scotland based on the Google definition of a back-bench SNP MSP; it will affect thousands and thousands of pubs and clubs—
Does the member agree that businesses have suffered over the past 18 months and that the SNP is knocking them back down again with this scheme?
I agree with that point.
It is important to stress that thousands of pubs and clubs are open after midnight, many of which do not have door staff to enforce this policy, so they might close by stealth, and the public has no idea of the number of venues that the policy will affect.
Where is the promised extra support from the Government? The health secretary said several times that he is listening to the concerns of the business community. Is he listening to Liz Cameron, chief executive of Scottish Chamber of Commerce, who said:
“it is becoming clear that the Scottish Government expect businesses to bear the burden of implementation costs, without any financial support whatsoever”?
Is he listening to Stephen Montgomery of the Scottish hospitality group, who said that the policy was shambolic, and that
“any rushed policy is a bad policy”?
Is he listening to the Scottish Licensed Trade Association? If he were, he might have noticed that it is taking him to court, which is hardly a ringing endorsement. As Daniel Johnson said,
“the situation is a mess, and is it any wonder that those in the hospitality sector feel dismayed?”
This is a bad plan being badly implemented. If the Government were listening, it would put this policy, and not just its enforcement, on hold, and it would think again.15:50
Both Liz Smith and Michelle Thomson highlighted the fundamentally difficult issue, with which the Government has wrestled for the past 18 months, of balancing the significant impact of the virus on public health with its impact on other aspects of the economic and social life of individuals in our country.
As members know, I have been at the centre of decision making on those difficult choices, and developed the four harms framework, on which basis we have exited lockdown over the course of the past 12 months. The issue of balancing public health questions with economic and social ones is incredibly difficult. Paul McLennan’s speech, therefore, was important; it reminded Parliament that there are on average 2,500 Covid cases a day now, and that more than 1,000 people are hospitalised due to Covid today.
Mitigating factors also exist, such as the fact that substantial levels of vaccination have been undertaken across the country, and I pay due credit to those who have executed the vaccination programme.
Will the Deputy First Minister take an intervention?
Will Mr Cole-Hamilton let me develop my point?
At previous stages in the pandemic, 2,500 cases a day would have meant that vast sectors of our economy would have had to close to protect the public. With 1,000 or more hospitalisation cases, our national health service is wrestling with significant and acute strain in its operation.
Those decisions are important. However, does the Deputy First Minister recognise that they demand parliamentary scrutiny, and that this one-hour Opposition debate is practically the only proper scrutiny that those policies have had? Right now, in the Court of Session, Government lawyers are pointing to this debate as evidence of scrutiny in the chamber, and that is not good enough.
The member will forgive me, but a Government debate on the subject took place a couple of weeks ago. I was in front of the committee, which took evidence on the subject, and I will be in front of it again tomorrow, so a significant amount of parliamentary scrutiny is taking place.
Will the Deputy First Minister give way?
Can Mr Fraser forgive me for a second? I want to develop the point that John Mason made: because of the nature of the pandemic and a virus that presents a significant threat to human health and wellbeing, decisions have had to be taken and implemented at pace, most of them an awful lot faster than this particular proposal. That pace is necessary because of the pandemic, but also because of its acute driver—the delta variant.
I asked Mr Mason a question earlier about when we would see the regulations that are being introduced. According to Philip Sim, the BBC reporter, the Scottish Government’s QC told the Court of Session this afternoon that the COVID-19 Recovery Committee would scrutinise those regulations tomorrow. I am the deputy convener of that committee, and I have not seen them—they are not on the agenda for tomorrow. Has the Government’s QC just misled the Court of Session?
No. As I understand it, the material will be available to the committee later this afternoon. There is the answer to the question.
Daniel Johnson knows that I have a high regard for him, but I felt that his speech was awfully confused, particularly about the advisability of Zoom calls. Mr Johnson said that
“Carrying on regardless ... is not consultation”
but the Government is not carrying on regardless; the Government has listened and delayed the enforcement of the provisions. Indeed, on the radio this morning, Leon Thompson, the executive director of UKHospitality in Scotland said:
“it is certainly the right decision to delay enforcement. That’s something that we’ve been calling for”.
He also said:
“That’s certainly welcome news”
“This does alleviate some of the pressures and burdens on us which we have been highlighting over the last few weeks.”
I am pleased that Mr Thompson was able to put that on the record, because Mr Smyth does not have it in him to say anything decent about this particular issue.
I am afraid that I am still confused and I would be grateful for clarification from the Deputy First Minister. What, apart from delaying the measures, has the Government done to alter them one iota? I have not spotted anything.
If Mr Johnson were to look at the guidance that we have issued, he would see that we have taken a pragmatic approach to the way in which businesses will be expected to implement the regulations. We have set out the various steps that businesses will have to take to make sure that they are in a position to implement the regulations effectively.
Will the member take an intervention?
I will have to wind up my remarks, but Mr Smyth can keep persisting from his sedentary position. It is something of a specialty of his.
No, he cannot.
The Government believes that these are the right measures to be taken to tackle the pandemic, and I look forward to members supporting our amendment at 5 o’clock tonight.15:56
I will start by addressing the issue of parliamentary scrutiny. We are having this debate only because the Opposition called it, otherwise it would not be taking place at all.
Mr Fraser seems to have the same amnesia as Mr Cole-Hamilton. The Government brought the issue to a debate a couple of weeks ago. Has he forgotten how badly he performed in that debate?
I recall that debate because I spoke in it, but Mr Swinney could not answer any of the questions that we asked about the purpose of the policy.
We have not seen the regulations. Mr Swinney said that we will see them this afternoon. I have with me the agenda for tomorrow’s COVID-19 Recovery Committee and there is no mention of any time being set aside to consider the regulations. Mr Mason has not seen them. I have not seen them. I am sure that other members have not seen them. These measures are being brought in at 5 am on Friday morning and we have no idea what the detail of them will be because they have not been brought to Parliament.
Mr Fraser must surely have looked at the material that the Government has published that gives the details about the scheme that will be brought into effect. It is completely and utterly unacceptable for Mr Fraser to indicate that none of that detail has been put into the public domain by the Government.
I am sure that Mr Swinney knows the difference between the law and policy that has been announced by the Government. Even Mr Swinney must know the difference between those two aspects. Yet again, the Government will bring in regulations as made regulations. They will come into force immediately, without any parliamentary scrutiny, and that is not acceptable.
In this debate, we have been challenged by Mr Mason and a number of other SNP members to say what we would do differently. What are the alternatives? There are two very simple things. First, we would properly resource test and protect so that we are tracing people who have positive contacts and, secondly, we would reach out to those groups who are not accessing vaccinations to increase the take-up of vaccinations. Those are two practical policies that could be introduced as an alternative to what is being proposed today.
It is more than three weeks since the Government proposed this policy, and we are still no clearer about where the evidence is that supports the introduction of the policy. I remember Mr Rowley in the COVID-19 Recovery Committee asking Mr Swinney if he would bring forward the science that backed up the policy, but three weeks on, we still have not seen it. We can piece together what the Government thinks are the arguments from what Mr Swinney, Mr Yousaf and others have said, but we have not seen the science behind the policy.
It seems to be that the arguments in favour centre around two areas. The first is that having vaccination passports will provide greater protection for people in crowds. There might well be limited protection for people in crowds, although we have heard—Professor Jason Leitch has accepted this point—that because of the delta variant, that protection will be limited. At the event that Mr Cole-Hamilton referenced, even when people were double vaccinated, there was still a risk of infection. Therefore, that is not a complete answer to the question.
The other alternative is that the certification scheme might encourage take-up of vaccination, but we have yet to see where the evidence is to support that viewpoint. Indeed, there are many experts who take the view that it might increase the incidence of vaccine hesitancy. Last week, the COVID-19 Recovery Committee heard from Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery of the Ada Lovelace Institute, who said:
“The worry is that instead of addressing the reasons for distrust and concern, vaccination passports aim to up the stakes, with people being told that if they want to enter certain venues, they must be vaccinated. That might exacerbate distrust and come back to haunt us.”—[Official Report, COVID-19 Recovery Committee, 23 September 2021; c 19.]
Tomorrow, the committee will hear from Professor Stephen Reicher and Professor Christopher Dye—a professor of epidemiology, no less—who also have similar concerns about such matters.
The Government simply has not made the case or produced the science on why vaccination passports are required at this particular time. Indeed, when it made the case three or four weeks ago, the case rates were much higher than they are today. We have seen a very helpful and welcome reduction in the case rates since then. If matters were so serious, as the Government suggested, why did it announce the partial U-turn that we had just yesterday, with the introduction of a grace period of two and a half weeks? If the situation were so serious, surely it would not have done that.
We have heard about the human rights concerns that Judith Robertson of the Scottish Human Rights Commission expressed to the committee last week. She made it clear that the case had not been made for the introduction of vaccination passports. She said:
“There is not clarity about the evidence that is being used to make decisions.”—[Official Report, COVID-19 Recovery Committee, 23 September 2021; c 8.]
I, too, am a member of the COVID-19 Recovery Committee. At last week’s meeting, I mentioned that there is a care home company that is based in England that has a care home in my constituency that is sacking people who are not double vaccinated. Whose human rights are more important—the people who go into the care home to be looked after and stay alive or the people who refuse to be double vaccinated?
I have 20 seconds left. Mr Fairlie has raised a really significant issue that requires a serious level of debate and discussion. I will not give Mr Fairlie an off-the-cuff response, because that would not do justice to the serious issue that he has raised, which is one that I sympathise with.
I will be brief in winding up. As we have heard, industry has a lot of concerns. So strongly does the Night Time Industries Association Scotland feel about the damage that will be done to the economy that it is taking a legal case against the Scottish Government in the Court of Session.
Just last week, thanks to the travel industry’s raising of concerns, we had an SNP U-turn on the requirement that international travellers who were double vaccinated also had to have a polymerase chain reaction test. Yesterday, there was another U-turn, with the introduction of a grace period. If the Scottish Government can rethink those issues, it must rethink the issue of a vaccination certification scheme, too.
We know that there are back-bench SNP members who are concerned about the policy. Indeed, even SNP front-bench members were expressing their concern about the policy just a few weeks ago. We also know that there are members of the Green Party who are deeply concerned about it. I hope that, for once, SNP back benchers will grow a backbone, stand up to the front bench and say, “This policy is damaging, it is not wanted and it should be put on hold.”
That is why I support the motion in the name of Douglas Ross.
Thank you. We have no time in hand, so I ask front-bench members to change over as quickly as possible so that we can move to the next item of business.