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Friday, December 3, 2021

Covid: No extension to Scottish vaccine passport scheme


Scotland’s vaccine passport system will not be extended to more venues, Nicola Sturgeon has announced.

The scheme’s expansion to include cinemas, theatres, and other hospitality venues had been considered by the first minister.

However, she told MSPs that doing so would be out of proportion, given the slight decrease in case numbers.

From the 6th of December, people will be able to enter venues that are already covered by the scheme by presenting a negative test rather than proof of two jabs.

These include nightclubs and large events such as football matches and concerts, and would bring Scotland’s system in line with that of other countries such as Wales.

Ms Sturgeon said taking a lateral flow test before socialising with others over the festive period was a “vitally important” step in minimising the spread of the virus.

A decision on adding more venues to the scheme had been expected for several weeks, with Ms Sturgeon previously telling MSPs that it could help “get through what will be a challenging winter without having to reintroduce restrictions on trade”.

The government published an evidence paper which suggested Scotland faced a choice between either extending the vaccine passport system or closing down venues and limiting the number of people who can meet up.

However, after reviewing the most recent data at Ms Sturgeon’s cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning, ministers ultimately decided to do neither.

While Scotland was still in a precarious position, with “significant and sustained” pressure on the NHS, the data was “more positive than we might have expected it to be,” according to the first minister.

Ms Sturgeon said the virus’s spread had slowed, with the average number of new cases recorded each day falling by about 3% in the last week.

She stated that given the “inescapable impact vaccine certification has on the operation of businesses,” ministers concluded that extending the scheme would be inequitable.

However, venues that continue to be covered by the scheme will be able to accept a negative lateral flow test instead of proof of vaccination beginning on December 6th, as is already the case in many other countries that have implemented vaccine passports.

Ms Sturgeon stated that this was originally left out of the scheme to help drive up vaccination rates, but that due to high uptake rates, testing could now be included as an alternative.

Ms Sturgeon urged people to take a lateral flow test before socialising over the festive period

The first minister also urged people to get vaccinated before going out for the holidays, saying, “You could very well be saving your own life, as well as the lives of your loved ones.”

“You will be assisting the NHS and increasing our chances of surviving this winter without the need for additional restrictions.”

Hospitality bosses had warned that pubs and restaurants could face an “avalanche of cancellations” if the certification scheme had been extended over the normally busy Christmas period.

The CBI Scotland business group applauded the decision, saying it “strikes the right balance between managing the virus and protecting our economy’s recovery.”

“Many firms would have faced practical challenges and increased costs to implement measures at a time when bumper trading is needed to claw back lost or reduced revenues,” she said.

The Federation of Small Businesses called the decision a “relief,” saying businesses “will now have a weight lifted off their shoulders.”

The Scottish Retail Consortium, meanwhile, said businesses would be “delighted to see a reprieve from further restrictions,” praising ministers for listening to industry concerns.

Nicola Sturgeon has a habit of foreshadowing potential changes to Covid rules. In the last two weeks, she and her deputy have made it clear that expanding the use of vaccine certification to additional venues was a serious possibility.

A Scottish government evidence paper went so far as to suggest that ministers faced a choice between expanding the use of certification and implementing lockdown-style measures in order to further suppress Covid.

However, the first minister’s statement today stopped short of taking either option at this point, citing business opposition and relatively stable case numbers.

Instead, they are counting on the continued use of existing measures such as vaccination and mask wearing, as well as an appeal for increased use of home testing, to keep the NHS from becoming overburdened.

Accepting lateral flow tests as well as proof of vaccination for entry to venues that already require certification brings Scotland’s scheme more in line with Wales and Northern Ireland.

Opposition parties, who have questioned the efficacy of vaccine passports, said the move amounted to a government U-turn after weeks of speculation about the scheme’s expansion.

Sandesh Gulhane, a Scottish Conservative health spokesman, said ministers appeared to be “making it up as they go along.”

“The uncertainty that this government has left over businesses for the last two weeks was unnecessary and unacceptable,” he said.

Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, said the government was “determined to be seen to be doing something, rather than doing the right thing.”

“We’ve spent months chasing the wrong priority,” he added. According to the government’s own data, there has been no increase in vaccine uptake, and transmission has not decreased.

“I welcome the addition of a negative test going forward, but frankly, we are in this position because the government refused to admit it was wrong and move in the right direction.”

Ms Sturgeon said Mr Sarwar was “fundamentally wrong,” and that allowing the use of tests in the system earlier would have “undermined the scheme’s central primary goal” of increasing vaccination rates.

Meanwhile, Alex Cole-Hamilton, the Scottish Lib Dem leader, called the government’s evidence paper “mince” and claimed that ministers had caused “weeks of uncertainty and panic” for businesses.

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