Covid Scotland: Vaccine passports likely to be extended three weeks before Christmas
Scottish businesses are preparing for an extension of Scotland’s vaccine passport scheme to kick in three weeks before Christmas as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned further action was necessary to avoid a lockdown over the festive period.
Theatres, cinemas and other licensed premises are likely to have to require customers to show proof of their vaccination status from December 6, in a bid to curb rising Covid cases in Scotland.
Evidence of a recent lateral flow test is likely to be introduced as an alternative to being fully vaccinated.
However, businesses were given a week’s reprieve, after Ms Sturgeon said a final decision on whether more stringent mitigations would be introduced would not be made until next week.
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The announcement comes after the Scottish Chambers of Commerce (SCC) had warned one in four businesses would face “immediate financial peril” if restrictions were extended further.
Following the First Minister’s statement, the organisation welcomed the delay to changes as “good news”, but warned any future extension of the scheme would cause “damage” to Scottish firms.
SCC chief executive Dr Liz Cameron said: “While no changes have been made today, businesses remain concerned and uncertain about the potential impact of upcoming decisions.
"If restrictions are reintroduced or extended, businesses will be hit financially, impacting on jobs and loss of trade.
"This would be especially painful as many have been seeing growth from the easing of restrictions and are looking ahead to the traditional Christmas boom period.
“To have seen no new business support measures outlined in the updated strategic framework will be very disappointing for firms concerned about the prospect of restrictions returning, without any safety net.
"Considering the damage that restrictions would do to businesses at this time, we urge the Scottish Government to reconsider and outline how they would reimburse firms and protect jobs in this scenario.”
UKHospitality Scotland executive director Leon Thompson said: “Today’s statement does nothing to remove business uncertainty at a time when many are facing financial difficulty.
"The delay in the decision on whether or not to extend vaccine certification simply brings any introduction of an expanded scheme into December. This creates further confusion for businesses and consumers alike, just ahead of Christmas.
"Our businesses need to be able to trade fully at this critical time. Hotels are already reporting cancellations due to the current situation, with nightclubs and other late-night venues citing a drop in trade of up to 40 per cent.”
Andrew McRae, policy chair at the Federation of Small Businesses, said an expansion of the existing vaccine passport scheme would have a disproportionate impact on the local firms with the fewest staff.
He said: “As policymakers consider their next steps, they must avoid a situation where they place tough restrictions on the local and independent businesses hit hardest by this pandemic."
Ms Sturgeon said: “We will take a final decision next Tuesday in light of the most up to date data. In the meantime, later this week, we will publish an evidence paper and consult businesses on the practicalities of implementation should changes be made.
“However, while final decisions have not yet been reached, I want to provide an update on the issues under consideration. I should also say that we would provisionally intend for any changes we do decide on to the scheme to take effect from December 6.
“When the scheme launched on October 1, we judged that it was not appropriate at that time, given the imperative to drive up vaccination rates, to include testing as an alternative to proof of vaccination. But we indicated that this would be kept under review.”
She added: “So we will be assessing in the coming days whether, on the basis of current and projected vaccination uptake rates, we are now in a position to amend the scheme so that in addition to showing evidence of vaccination to access a venue, there will also be the option of providing evidence of a recent negative test result. This is already a feature of many other countries’ certification schemes.
“We are also considering whether an expansion of the scheme to cover more settings would be justified and prudent given the current state of the pandemic.”
Ms Sturgeon said the businesses likely to be affected included indoor cinemas, theatres, and some other licensed and hospitality premises.
She said there would be exemptions for those under 18; for those who cannot be vaccinated or tested for medical reasons; for people on clinical trials; and for those who work at events or in venues subject to the scheme.
Exceptions would also be retained for worship, weddings, funerals and related gatherings.
She added: “I am acutely aware that many businesses want us to remove mitigations, including certification, not extend or tighten them. I understand that.
"But all of our decisions are motivated by a desire to get through what will be a challenging winter without having to re-introduce any restrictions on trade.
"We want if possible businesses to stay fully open over Christmas and through the winter, while also keeping Covid under control. If an expansion of Covid certification can help us do that, it would be irresponsible not to consider it.”
Many countries across Europe have implemented similar scheme, which require vaccine passports to enter cafes, restaurants, cinemas and gyms.
In Italy and France, the pass is also needed for some travel on public transport. Meanwhile, Austria earlier this week banned unvaccinated people from leaving the house, except for essential reasons such as work or shopping for food.
Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross criticised the Scottish Government for leaving businesses with just two weeks to adapt after the changes to the vaccination passport scheme are formally announced.
Meanwhile, Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar and Scottish Liberal Democrat counterpart Alex Cole-Hamilton both called for a vaccine-based passport scheme to be scrapped completely and replaced with a system based entirely on negative lateral flow tests (LFTs).
Mr Sarwar said: “We all know that the vaccine works. It reduces hospitalisation, death rates and cases of long Covid. But it does not stop you from getting the virus and it doesn’t stop you from spreading the virus.
“At every point in the process of developing vaccine passports Scottish Labour has argued the importance of a negative test.”
Mr Cole-Hamilton said: “We know that LFTs are superior to vaccine passports. They provide an on the day snapshot of your Covid status, helping ascertain who is sick and who is well, and they remove the need to share your medical history with someone who is not your clinician.”
Ms Sturgeon also called for people to ensure they complied with government guidance on face coverings and launched a £25 million fund to improve ventilation in business premises to stem the spread of the virus.
Small and medium-sized businesses such as restaurants, bars and gyms will be able to claim back costs of up to £2,500 to undertake work such as the installation of carbon dioxide monitors and remedial improvement work to windows and vents under the scheme, which opens to applications next week.