Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine certification scheme debate: Deputy First Minister's statement - 9 September 2021

Opening remarks by Deputy First Minister John Swinney in the Scottish Parliament on 9 September 2021.

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Presiding officer, throughout the Covid pandemic, the Scottish Government has taken actions that are proportionate to the nature and the circumstances of the challenges that we have faced.

It is for that reason that we have brought forward for debate our proposal to introduce a mandatory domestic Vaccine Certification scheme for a limited number of events.

The situation in which we find ourselves is currently fragile.

Despite the vaccine, we have seen over the last fortnight the number of weekly cases has increased from 26,167 to 44,198. The number of people in hospital with Covid has increased from 391 to 883, and those in intensive care from 44 to 82.

But despite these concerning levels of growth in cases and levels of hospitalisation, we all recognise, and I believe are committed to, the need to try all we can to protect the return to greater normality that we have experienced in recent weeks.

In June, the Government changed our strategic intent from suppressing the virus to the lowest possible level to a broader view that recognises all possible harms, including social and economic harms. 

We accepted that measures such as physical distancing were placing considerable burdens on our economy that could not be judged to be proportionate.

And so on 9 August we removed the majority of remaining restrictions while retaining an effective baseline of public health measures.  That baseline includes Test and Protect, the use of face coverings in certain settings, and continued emphasis on good hygiene and ventilation. 

Of course it is the extraordinary vaccination programme – in which 84% of all over 18 year olds are now fully vaccinated – that allowed us to make that move beyond level zero. 

And I want again to pay full credit to teams the length and breadth of Scotland who have now delivered over seven million vaccinations since the first Covid vaccination was delivered on 8 December 2020.

But just as vaccination changed the game in terms of Covid response, the arrival of the now predominant Delta variant has led to the fragile position that exists today.  

Vaccination has significantly reduced the link between cases and serious health harm from Covid – the proportion of people with the virus who end up in hospital is much lower now than it was pre-vaccine programme.

But that link has only weakened; it has not been broken entirely.  And with our National Health Service under immense pressure, as we catch up with delayed treatment and care, we need to reduce the number of people in hospital with Covid related issues.

In these circumstances, I believe it is necessary and appropriate for us to take further proportionate action.  Not a return to the lockdowns of the past but effective and targeted action.

Action that where possible, minimises the harm restrictions cause to businesses, to young people’s education and to our overall well-being.

It is precisely in that context that we are proposing to introduce a mandatory domestic vaccination certification scheme.

This is not an additional layer of restriction, imposed on a world that is essentially back to normal. 

It is a proportionate response to a world in which there is the continued risk of serious harm from Covid, where our hospitals are under strain and where we are beginning to see the serious impact of Long Covid.

If the choice is between sectors and settings being closed, and a limited certification scheme being used to keep them open, the Government believes it is right to make a choice in favour of a limited certification scheme.

As with all Covid measures, certification has provoked controversy and debate. 

But I encourage Parliament to consider the clinical justification for a vaccine certification scheme. 

There is clear clinical evidence that double vaccination significantly reduces the likelihood that a person will get Covid-19.

There is clear clinical evidence that certain settings are associated with the risk of spikes in infections.  We know about the risks of settings where large numbers gather or people spend time close together, particularly indoors.

We also know that the activity associated with very large events will pose risks.  We saw for example, a marked spike around the Euro 2020 tournament.

Therefore ensuring only those who are double vaccinated attend those higher risk venues and events can directly reduce the risk of transmission in these settings.

We accept, of course, that the extent of protection against transmission from our vaccines is certainly lower now with Delta than with the previous dominant variant.  

It does not eliminate the risk but it is likely that it does reduce the risk.

So any certification scheme cannot be based on a guarantee of no transmission but is about allowing some of our higher risk settings  to operate more safely when the potential alternative would be closure.

Furthermore, this will help to protect those who are more vulnerable, for example, those who either cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, or who, because of underlying medical conditions, do not respond effectively to the vaccine. 

In addition, we believe that certification will encourage a proportion of the eligible population who remain unvaccinated to get vaccinated.

That is something we have seen in other jurisdictions.

Of course like any Covid measure we should not use it for a moment longer than needed.

Regulations will be reviewed against the policy’s intention to reduce transmission and boost vaccination uptake and will be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny. 

These regulations will be reviewed every three weeks.

Any certification regulations will  expire on 28 February 2022, as with all other Covid measures under the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Requirements) (Scotland) Regulations 2021.

It would require a further decision by this Parliament to extend them further.

Presiding Officer, let me now turn to the details of the scheme itself.

We published in Spice yesterday a paper setting out the policy rationale for domestic certification and how we expect it will work.

In that paper we indicated our intention to launch the scheme on 1 October.

We accept that that is only a few weeks from now but to be effective in the current fragile context, we believe we need to take rapid action.

We do not believe that domestic vaccine certification should ever be a requirement for any key services or in settings where people have no choice over attendance. And we continue to hold very firmly to that position.

As the First Minister set out in her statement to Parliament last week, we propose that vaccination certification should be introduced once all adults have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated – for the following events and venues:

  • firstly, in nightclubs and analogous settings
  • secondly, sexual entertainment venues
  • third, unseated indoor live events, with more than 500 people in the audience
  • unseated outdoor live events, with more than 4,000 people in the audience
  • and, lastly, any event, which has more than 10,000 people in attendance

We want the vaccine certification process to be as simple as possible.

There are just a few steps involved. From 30 September people will be able to use the NHS Scotland Covid Status App which also has a QR code. Anyone unable to use the app can request a secure uneditable paper record of vaccination. This will replace the current interim solution for accessing records of vaccination.

Staff in the venues affected can download the ‘NHS Scotland Covid Check’ verifier app to a smartphone or device.  This will be available during the course of the next week, well in advance of launch of the scheme.

There will be detailed guidance for venues on how to use this.  There will also be options for venues to integrate the verifier functionality into their own systems as the secure code is open source.

A person who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons will be able to apply for a document that says they are exempt. Those who are on clinical trials already have their exemption letter. They will be able to show that instead of record of vaccination.

Presiding Officer, the introduction of COVID vaccine certificates – even in the limited circumstances that I have set out today – is a significant development.

But the evidence base for its introduction in Scotland is not unique.  There are not factors about the virus or our circumstances that mean that this measure is unreasonable in Scotland but reasonable elsewhere.

The UK Government has announced an intention to introduce certification for England and several European countries – including France, Italy and Ireland – have already introduced certification.

Indeed, the certification schemes in other countries often cover a wider range of venues than the ones we are currently considering for Scotland.

As I have indicated Presiding Officer, the Government has set out details to Parliament of the nature of the scheme.

We put those proposals to Parliament this afternoon, as part of an approach to protect a very fragile situation in Scotland that we face today of rising infection that poses a threat to our national health service.

We are trying to take proportionate action to protect the public from coronavirus, and I encourage Parliament to support the measures by supporting the motion that I move in my name.

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