With SNP ministers set to make a decision on stricter vaccine passports on Tuesday, David Leask looks at how Europe has reacted to similar hardline Covid-19 policies 


As days shorten and temperatures fall, the virus has started to spread again.

Across Europe, cases of – and deaths by – Covid are on the rise as we enter a third pandemic winter.

Earlier this month, the head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) for the continent warned half a million more lives may be lost by February.

“We must change our tactics,” Hans Kluge declared, “from reacting to surges of Covid-19 to preventing them from happening in the first place.” 

And so governments – at least many of them – have started to swing behind more and more restrictions, especially for the unvaccinated. 

Some countries have taken what, politically, are pretty tough and dramatic decisions.

Take Austria. It first declared what amounted to a lockdown for those who have not been vaccinated although this has since widened to cover everybody. Then, this Friday, it announced vaccines would be compulsory from February, becoming the first European nation to do so in the process.

The city of Vienna, at the end of last week, booked an appointment for every citizen who has not yet had a shot in the arm, whether they asked for one or not.

Most politicians across the continent are trying to avoid both costly lockdowns and controversial population-wide vaccine mandates. 

Instead, they have, increasingly, turned to another tool: the “green pass”, or some kind of passport which shows a person is healthy or vaccinated.

Last week, the Scottish Government – which already has in place modest and limited restrictions on the unvaccinated entering nightclubs and other large venues – signalled it would follow suit.

SNP ministers will make a final decision on Tuesday on whether to expand the passport scheme to cinemas, theatres, and more licensed and hospitality premises. 

New rules, if imposed, would come in on December 6. 

Winter fears
COVID cases in Scotland are well off their late summer peak but looking elsewhere and their own hospitals working at capacity, officials fear the winter. An evidence paper published on Friday set out their dilemma, the same one faced across the continent.

“To suppress the virus further we are now faced with a choice,” it said.

“This is to limit social contacts and the risk of infection by limiting social contacts by closing venues, limiting group sizes and advising people not to meet other.

“Alternatively, we can enable people to meet up in a lower-risk way by using certification to reduce the risk that an infectious person will be present in a higher-risk setting.”

The paper was also blunt about some of the costs of expanding the scheme, citing reports of “substantial turnover losses” from the night-time industry.

Ministers are making their decision amid considerable hostility to vaccine passports from opposition Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – and also from some business interests, even those which self-evidently have far more to lose from shutting down altogether than from a passport system.

Their evidence report stressed how many peer Western European nations had flipped back to vaccine or health passes. 

Norway and Denmark are, or have, re-introduced their schemes. Wales has expanded its to theatres and cinemas.

As of last week, Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, Austria and Israel demanded some kind of health pass – either a vaccine passport or evidence of a recent test – to get into hospitality settings. But Scottish debate has not quite captured – or even replicated – conversations about this policy on the European mainland.  

Letting a member of staff scan a QR code on your phone – or, more rarely, in paper – is now routine for anybody going to the pictures or out for a meal in much of Europe. 

“Customers feel safer as the chance of encountering someone who had Covid was much lower,” epidemiologist Irene Petersen from Denmark told Holyrood’s Covid committee last week. 

She also said there were no problems with staff checking vaccine passports in Denmark, where they are called Coronapas.

But not everyone is happy across the continent. Usually small but often angry protests about such schemes are ubiquitous.

The biggest battles have been in Italy. Its “green pass” – they use the English term, borrowed from Israel, the pioneer of the policy – is Europe’s strictest. Starting last month, all workers have had to have one (though the scheme allows them to have a test rather than a vaccine).

Obligatory jag
BUSINESS is not as hostile as the big hospitality lobbies in Scotland. Carlo Bonomi, the president of Confindustria, the main body representing industry, on Friday said he thought vaccine passports were the tool the country had to use. But he wanted to go further: obligatory vaccination.

“We have to have the courage to reflect on that seriously,” he said.
Some business leaders have gone further. A Confindustria in Trieste a couple of weeks ago equated the pandemic with a war and referred to those refusing to get vaccinated as “deserters”. 

The rhetoric keeps building up. Actor Massimo Ghini last week, unveiling a new horror movie, declared that “no vax” – the byword for those refusing to get vaccines or carry passports – were the “monsters of today”.

Opponents of the green pass include both elements of the far right and parts of the intelligentsia who claim the very policy is fascistic.
Last week, the cerebral thriller writer Gianrico Carofiglio – a former prosecutor and politician – in gentle tones condemned those equating the green pass to Nazi moves to make the people afraid as “embarrassing”.

Parts of eastern Europe are in a far worse position than the rich nations mulling tougher green passes.  

Either because of low supplies or hesitancy, poorer nations have lower uptake on vaccines. In Russia, the first country to announce a vaccine, more than 1,200 are dying each day, according to official statistics.

Excess deaths over the course of the epidemic have reached three-quarters of a million. In Ukraine, the daily death toll is above 600. In Romania, it is nearly 300. 

Many regions in Russia –whose propaganda networks cast doubts on Western vaccines – have imposed vaccine passports. A national programme is being explored. 

Fake certificates
HOWEVER, last week, the newspaper Kommersant revealed that a database of Moscovites who tried to avoid their city’s vaccine passport scheme by buying fake certificates and QR codes for their phones had been leaked online. There were half a million names on the list. All have committed a criminal offence. 

This potential problem had not escaped Scottish officials. In their evidence paper, they wrote: “Proof of vaccination can be open to manipulation, including fake certificates. Some countries have implemented fines and prosecution for individuals found using counterfeit certificates and for businesses found not to be checking certificates. Including testing as part of the scheme could address some of these risks.”

Italy is far from the only country with a green pass system which allows people to get a QR code if they just take a test. Rules vary on what kind of test is valid and for how long. 

Petersen from Denmark in Holyrood last week recommended this for Scotland. But such a policy is still up in the air.