Vaccine passports ‘a leap into North Korea territory’, says top scientist

FORCING people to be fully vaccinated before they are allowed into certain venues is “a leap into North Korea territory” and could alienate those already hesitant to get the jag, leading scientists have warned.

MSPs will be asked to vote next week on Scottish Government proposals banning people from attending nightclubs, adult entertainments venues, and large events such as football matches and concerts unless they have a certificate verifying that they have had both Covid vaccine doses.

READ MORE: Teachers’ risk of being hospitalised with Covid doubled after schools reopened 

The Scottish Government says the measure is necessary to curb spiralling infections rates without reimposing restrictions.

Nightclubs were allowed to reopen and football stadiums return to full capacity for the first time in around 17 months on August 9, but since then weekly Covid case numbers in Scotland have quadrupled from 8,395 to more than 42,000 in past week.

However, there were warnings that the policy could backfire by reducing trust in Government and public health measures.

Dr Chris Smith, a consultant clinical virologist and founder of the popular Naked Scientists podcast, said: “What people are fearful of is that this is a leap into North Korea territory to some extent.

“For the first time in the history of the United Kingdom, you’ve got people having to go a venue and share person medical data just to do something they would normally be able to do without having to sharing personal medical data, and that makes some people uncomfortable.

“They are probably more comfortable doing that if it is accepted that it is for a period of time in a crisis. But what we don’t want is some kind of mission creep here…where you are able to extrapolate it to other things.

“I think if it were time bound – if Nicola Sturgeon were to say ‘this is going to happen in a certain way, for a certain period of time’ – until either this point in time is reached, or a certain level of vaccination is achieved among all adults, so we’re not discriminating on any age, at that point we judge the measure to be successful and it will be revoked, I think perhaps people would be more comfortable with that.

“But the idea of just saying it’s blanket – to do X you have to turn up with a certificate of health – actually I think that’s going to put some people off.”

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Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland’s Kaye Adams programme, Dr Smith said the focus on nightclubs was geared to maximising uptake in young people.

To date, less than 74% of 18 to 29-year-olds in Scotland have had a first vaccine dose, with the passport policy expected to come into operation by the end of September – coinciding with the return of universities and a timetable by which all adults would have had the opportunity to have both doses.

Dr Smith added: “Any opportunity for people to get together is an opportunity for infectious diseases to spread. Nightclubs are one such place, but it just so happens that those sorts of venues happen to attract more people who happen to also be in the group who [have] lower uptake of vaccinations.

“So there’s a double whammy going on, because you’ve got people flocking to a venue that facilitates transmission and they are at the same time among that group who are the last to be offered vaccines, uptake is lower, and they’ve had less time to become immune.

“And the vaccines, while they are brilliant at preventing severe disease, they are less good at protecting from infection and stopping transmission.”

The Scottish Government says it has no plans currently to extend vaccine passports to the wider hospitality sector, such as bars, and restaurants, the policy will be kept “under review”.

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Professor Stephen Reicher, an expert in psychology at St Andrews and a member of the UK SAGE sub-committee on behavioural science, said vaccine passports were “not one size fits all” and were likely to vary in effectiveness between different countries and communities.

He said: “The impact of these passports depends very much on social trust.

“In countries and communities with high levels of social trust, who believe that the passports are there to help and protect the community, they go down very well.

“In Denmark, which has the highest level of social trust in the world, they were very positive, very effective – so effective that they are no longer needed because levels of vaccination are so high.

“In lower trust societies, they can lead to more conflict. In France for instance, we’re seeing quite a lot of conflict.

“The same goes on within communities. For people who are broadly positive, haven’t quite got round to getting vaccinated, vaccine passports give them a reason to go out and get vaccinated.

“But the problem is, and this is critical, within communities that have low social trust – who don’t trust what the government is doing, who think these passports are a form of control they can alienate people, they can lower intention.

“So they can be quite divisive. It’s quite hard to know how they will pan out in Scotland. Scotland has lower social trust than Denmark, but higher trust – certainly in Government – than in England.

“But there are concerns about their effects on precisely those alienated communities where you really need to push up levels of vaccination.

“In communities which historically have a sense of the state as an outside agency that controls them, it seems to reinforce that – it seems to reinforce the arguments of those who are anti-vaccination who say ‘you see, it’s about compulsion, it’s about them controlling you’.

“They [vaccine passports] can have a mixed effect. They can accelerate levels of vaccination in those who are well-disposed; it can alienate those who already rather alienated.”

Prof Reicher, speaking to BBC Radio Scotland this lunchtime, said uptake could also be boosted through school immunisations programmes or by targeting certain communities with mobile vaccination vans.

He added that it was also possible to curb infections if specific venues and sectors were made safe.

“We need to make vaccination as easy as possible. To engage with communities. To make sure people don’t have to go to get vaccinated – we go to people and make it easy. We should be thinking about vaccination centres within communities, mobile vaccination vans, we should be talking about giving vaccinations in schools.

“And in terms of the venues we’re talking about, what the research shows is that – critically – it’s not the venues that are dangerous in and of themselves, if they are properly ventilated. If they are properly hygienic.

“A big study came out in Nature Communication last week showing that in indoor mass events, if they are well-ventilated, if they are hygienic, then they don’t pose a major risk – so I think we could be doing much more to inspect, to certify, to require venues to meet certain standards before they open, so that they open safely.”

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992