Analysis: Sturgeon bows to pressure from businesses over extending vaccine passports

23 November 2021, 17:15

Nicola Sturgeon has "vowed to pressure", writes Gina Davidson.
Nicola Sturgeon has "vowed to pressure", writes Gina Davidson. Picture: Alamy
Gina Davidson

By Gina Davidson

Nicola Sturgeon has rowed back on the idea of expanding the controversial vaccine passport scheme, writes LBC's Scotland Political Editor Gina Davidson.

In a surprising eleventh-hour U-turn, Scotland’s First Minister appears to have bowed to pressure from the hospitality sector and also from opposition parties, and has agreed that the production of a negative lateral flow test will be enough to get into nightclubs and larger venues.

Or in other words, she trailed the idea last Tuesday, felt the heat, and decided not to jump from frying pan to fire.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic there has been general cross-party consensus on the Covid restrictions placed on the public. Face masks? Tick. Lockdowns? Tick. Working from home? Tick, tick.

Now however, with the success of the vaccination programme and the removal of furlough, the economic impact of Covid on Scotland’s economy is far more pressing.

Read more: Vaccine passports will not be extended to more venues in Scotland

The idea that was floated in the Scottish Government’s evidence paper last week was that the choice facing Scotland this winter was a return to lockdown or the extension and expansion of the Covid vaccine passport scheme. Cinemas, theatres and other hospitality venues not already affected - so pubs, restaurants and cafes - were likely to be caught in the net.

It provoked an outcry from businesses and from opposition MSPs. They pointed to COP26 where 30,000 people gathered for two weeks and no vaccine passports were required - just a negative lateral flow test. Despite fears of the event causing a spike in cases, none has appeared. This, they said, proved that LFTs were just as, if not more, effective at preventing transmission as vaccine passports.

Standing up in Holyrood to tell MSPs that there would be no expansion of the scheme, Nicola Sturgeon was keen to stress that her government was making decisions that were “proportionate”.

Covid cases were falling slightly again, the numbers in hospitals were steady, the booster programme was proving successful… all of this had led to her Cabinet’s decision that vaccine certification would stay in place as it currently works, and no extension was required.

She was also at pains to stress expansion of the scheme could still happen and that LFTs should also be taken whenever anyone was going anywhere to socialise - even shopping. A negative result is a green light to go out, a positive one, means a PCR test and isolation.

While Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said he welcomed the U-turn but accused the First Minister of “wasting months by ignoring experts and the evidence”, the move was greeted with relief by businesses, many of whom had warned they were facing complete closure if the expansion had gone ahead.

Describing it as a “reprieve” the Scottish Licensed Trade Association said it brought businesses “back from the brink” while the Federation of Small Businesses said it was a “weight off the shoulders” of its members.

Throughout the pandemic, relations between Nicola Sturgeon’s government and Scotland’s business sector has been gradually deteriorating - mostly due to what the latter perceives as a lack of consultation ahead of restrictions. The announcement today might go some way to beginning to repair that relationship. Certainly the Scottish Retail Consortium said “credit is due” to the government for listening to business.

Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon did what she has done best during the pandemic - appealing to people’s better nature, and the idea that everyone is in the fight against Covid together.

Vaccination and a negative test, she said, was the most “precious gift” anyone can give to a loved one this Christmas. It certainly beats transmitting a virus.