Vaccine passports: The key questions and concerns surrounding COVID certification
More than a year has passed since COVID-19 first caused significant disruption in Scotland.
Mass gatherings were banned and a wave of cancellations followed. Festivals, sporting events and theatre shows were halted to prevent the spread of coronavirus from spiralling out of control.
A lot has changed since then – the development and rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine for one – but arguably a lot has not as the country exited and then re-entered lockdown.
Many people are itching for a return to normality, whether it’s being able to head to the pub with friends, visit family indoors or go on holiday.
The so-called vaccine passport has been identified as a potential solution in speeding up that exit from lockdown and making it more sustainable, allowing the economy to recover.
The UK Government has plans to develop a COVID-status certification system over the coming months.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has suggested the Scottish Government could follow suit at some point, considering how the documentation could be used, but also reflecting on the potential ethical and equality questions.
It’s caused a split in opinion and some have been critical of the idea. Those opposing have hammered the plans as “divisive and discriminatory”, with some claiming it’s a case of introducing “super ID cards by the back door”.
Holyrood takes a look at some of the key questions surrounding the certification and whether passports could prove a help or a hindrance in a return to normality in Scotland.
What is a vaccine passport?
In simple terms, it would be a way of someone showing their COVID status.
The version being developed in England will consider three factors: vaccination, a recent negative test or natural immunity, which would be determined on the basis of a positive test within the previous six months.
The UK Government has said the system could allow “higher-risk settings to be opened up more safely and with more participants” and will be piloted in the future. It is not expected to be used for essential shops and public services.
Public health policy in Scotland is decided by the Scottish Government and so it is possible that if a vaccine passport was to be introduced here, the finer details could differ from that used south of the border.
Have any other countries adopted the idea?
Israel, which has the highest vaccination rate in the world, has a ‘green pass’. It is available to anyone who has had a second dose or has recovered from COVID-19. It is used for permission to enter gyms, restaurants and stadiums. It also allows vaccinated people to go on holidays to select countries.
Denmark has launched the ‘coronapas’ for people who have been fully vaccinated, have tested positive for COVID two to 12 weeks previously or negative over the previous 72 hours. It allows people to enter certain businesses, such as hairdressers and beauty salons, as it gradually reopens its economy. It is due to be expanded for restaurants and theatres from next month.
Meanwhile, the European Union is planning to allow vaccinated people and those who have tested negative to cross borders between member states.
Who is concerned about the system and why?
A cross-party group of MPs and peers have signed a pledge, voicing their opposition to the use of COVID status certification, arguing it would be “divisive and discriminatory”.
The issue has brought together unlikely allies, with ex-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and many of his former shadow cabinet joining the lockdown-sceptic COVID Research Group of Conservative MPs in opposing the plans.
The Liberal Democrats have also voiced opposition to its introduction in England – seeing it as a means of restricting freedoms when they should be returning – while Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Lib-Dems, warned against it being brought forward in Scotland.
Rennie said the idea would be “grossly unfair” to those who have yet to receive a COVID-19 vaccine or those who have been advised not to get it. He has also said they would be “a bit pointless”, adding the best way to suppress the virus was through vaccine uptake, testing and people’s behaviour.
What is the Scottish Government’s stance?
The Scottish Government has not formalised any plans for vaccine passports and the First Minister said practical and ethical issues would need to be "carefully" thought through.
However, she has said it is important not to “close our minds” to the concept, adding that anything that can support a return to normality should be considered.
Sturgeon acknowledged the potential challenges, practically and ethically, and said the public should have confidence in vaccine certification if Scotland was to go ahead with it.
She said: “If there's to be an acceptance of that, then we have taken the time openly, not behind closed doors and government buildings, but openly with the public to air all of the issues and air some of the challenges."
Sturgeon also has said there are "unanswered questions" on the impact of the vaccine in transmission and also highlighted potential fairness issues because people under 16 cannot get the vaccine.
There are four-nations discussions ongoing, but the Scottish Government will make its own decision.