Orcadian Column, 09 September 2021


After months of humming and hawing; nods and winks; rumours about ‘will she, won’t she’, Nicola Sturgeon finally confirmed last week her intention to introduce domestic vaccine passports in Scotland.

Parliament will have a chance to debate and vote on these proposals this week. In reality, however, that vote is a foregone conclusion thanks to the coalition agreed between the SNP and Greens, which trumps earlier Green opposition to such plans, about which more later.

Faced with spiralling Covid cases, doubtless the First Minister felt under pressure to be seen to be doing ‘something different’. Amid dark mutterings about possible ‘circuit breaker lockdowns’, Ms Sturgeon has opted to pin her hopes for now on vaccine passports to increase vaccination rates amongst younger Scots.

Unlike overseas travel, where passports have long been a feature of the requirements placed on people, including in some instances the need to be vaccinated against diseases endemic in certain parts of the world, this move represents uncharted territory. For the first time, people in Scotland will be compelled to show evidence of their medical records in order to access certain freedoms.

Those ‘freedoms’, of course, are limited at this stage to accessing nightclubs and other larger indoor and outdoor events, but there can be no doubt that this establishes a principle; one that should give everyone pause for thought, not least about the way emergency powers are being used by ministers.

And we have no detail yet on how long these proposed vaccine passports will be in place; how they will be enforced by the businesses expected to take on that role; and even how effective they will be in driving down the rate of infection spread.

On this latter point, there are worrying signs that this move may even be counter-productive. Research to be published shortly in the medical journal, The Lancet suggests vaccine passports actually increase or more deeply entrench existing levels of ‘vaccine hesitancy’.  Certainly the move has been gleefully pounced on by those with anti-vax conspiracy theories to sell.

Add to that the false sense of security such passports are likely to create, where adherence to other safeguard measures is suddenly seen as less important, and the First Minister’s determination to press ahead looks more questionable still. Little wonder, perhaps, that over the weekend, Ms Sturgeon’s Health Secretary acknowledged that Scots are ‘generally uncomfortable’ with such proposals.

Most vocal in declaring their discomfort, not surprisingly, have been those businesses set to be at the sharp end of enforcing any new rules. The practicalities, they argue, have not been properly thought through.  Meantime, human rights groups have been quick to sound the alarm about the wider implications, while the Health and Social Care Alliance has been busy pointing out the potential ‘discriminatory impact on specific population groups’, not just younger people.

Indeed, this was a theme picked up by Green Co-Leader, Patrick Harvie just over a month ago. In an article for The National, Mr Harvie declared, “vaccine passports deepen discrimination… deepen inequality at a time when the country needs collective effort. Worse still, the confusion allows anti-vaxxers to spread misinformation about the safety and purpose of the vaccine itself”.

Since then, however, a coalition deal has been struck between the SNP and Greens. As such, and despite these grave misgivings, Mr Harvie and his newly-appointed Green ministerial colleague, Lorna Slater look certain to vote through the plans for vaccine passports on Thursday. An inauspicious start to life holding the SNP to account from inside government.

I understand the desire to see steps taken to protect current freedoms and allow remaining restrictions to be lifted. To achieve that, however, the First Minister should focus on expanding capacity in a Test and Protect system that has been struggling to cope. More proactive, hands-on targeting of the vaccine message would also help, as it would allow for a better understanding of the reasons for ‘hesitancy’ amongst certain groups.

None of this is easy, of course, nor does it detract from the resounding success of a vaccine programme that remains our route out of this pandemic. However, opting for a quick fix that isn’t a fix at all risks doing more harm than good.

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