One of Scotland’s top Covid experts has called for vaccine passports to be extended to gyms and cafes after COP26 due to an anticipated surge in cases.
Professor Devi Sridhar last week warned the climate summit could lead to a rise in cases and trigger the need for further restrictions.
The chair of global public health at Edinburgh University said this may not amount to a 2020-style lockdown, but instead “protections” should be put in place – drawing comparison with smokers sitting outside so other people’s health is not jeopardised by their choices.
French cinemas, museums and sports venues are asking visitors to furnish proof of Covid vaccination or a negative test, and German cafe customers are required to show proof of vaccination or a negative test to have the privilege of sitting indoors.
Experts expect COP26 to cause a spike in cases around the end of November while the NHS is already struggling to cope.
The military was drafted in to drive ambulances across Scotland, NHS Lanarkshire is in ‘code black’ and both NHS Lothian and NHS Ayrshire and Arran are warning patients to stay away from A&E unless their condition is critical.
NHS Grampian is also warning that it is being stretched “further than ever before”.
Professor Sridhar said: “I think what people need to realise is that when they need the NHS in December, it may not be there in the way we want it to be if we don’t put in protections.
“We know there’s not much room to manoeuvre right now within the NHS and so when people ask if we’re going to have restrictions, I say we possibly could, depending on how the NHS looks, and right now it doesn’t look great.”
She said a mistake during the pandemic has been to think of restrictions as “lockdown or nothing”.
Instead, the government should think about “protections”, including encouraging vaccine take-up, and a wider vaccine passport scheme.
Existing rules require anyone aged 18 and over to provide evidence of their full vaccination or exemption before entering a nightclub, an unseated indoor event with more than 500 people, an unseated outdoor event with more than 4000 people or any gathering with more than 10,000 attendees.
Prof Sridhar said: “If we look at New York City, France, Italy, Germany … they’re much stricter on indoor venues.
“If you go to a coffee shop in Germany and you sit outside, they don’t ask you for any proof of anything.
“But if you want to go inside, you need to show proof of a negative test in the past 24 hours or double vaccination.
“This is the way they’ve kept their indoor settings safer.
“It’s not 100%, but it’s good enough and it offers the option that if you do want to still go, you can sit outside and stay out of the riskier settings.”
Prof Sridhar expects this idea to be “controversial”, but likens it to laws meaning customers at indoor venues have to go outside if they want to smoke.
She added: “We use public policy to make it safer for the community, while also getting people to choose the option.
“If they don’t want to be vaccinated, that’s fine, but they need to sit outside.
“The thing I think that is tragic now is we’re having people die who probably don’t need to die.
“Our case rates are so much higher and our death rates are so much higher than other countries in Europe.
“If there are things we could do to bring that down, why wouldn’t we?”
Scotland’s vaccine passport scheme has already been branded controversial among opposition MSPs, and an extended system would be certain to draw further criticism.
The Liberal Democrats labelled the existing system an “assault on medical privacy”.
Party leader and health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “The SNP’s poorly planned and illiberal Covid ID card scheme is unworkable and only gives people a false sense of security.
“If we were to copy the system EU countries adopted, it would be to introduce the option of providing a negative test result or proof of recent infection as an alternative to vaccine certification.
“It’s time to ditch this assault on medical privacy and focus on what actually works – vaccines and an effective contact tracing operation.”
Scottish Conservative shadow Covid recovery spokesperson Murdo Fraser said: “The SNP’s vaccine passport scheme has already had a devastating effect on venues that currently fall under the scheme, with nightlife businesses reporting a drop in trade of nearly 50%.
“Extending vaccine passports to even more indoor venues in Scotland would be catastrophic for businesses that are only just beginning to recover from the pandemic.
“The Equality and Human Rights Commission has already raised concerns over the SNP’s shambolic vaccine passport scheme.
“They should be dropping it, not considering an extension of it.”
According to Prof Sridhar, allowing proof of a negative test as well as vaccination would work, but only if testing was very easy and readily available.
A Scottish Government spokesman said it had “no current plans” to extend the scheme, and added: “We will, however, keep this under review to ensure our certification scheme remains necessary, proportionate and targeted.”