Q&A: Vaccine passes for restaurants and pubs

Why are they being brought in, and how will they work?

Leo Varadkar on Wednesday suggested adapting the EU’s Digital Covid Certificate for use with domestic services. Photograph: iStock

Leo Varadkar on Wednesday suggested adapting the EU’s Digital Covid Certificate for use with domestic services. Photograph: iStock

 

There has been huge controversy over the Government’s decision to halt the reopening of indoor services in restaurants and pubs and to require vaccine passes of customers when they do. But why is this happening and how would it work?

The Government was against vaccine passes for accessing domestic services – why the U-turn?

On Monday night, the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) presented Ministers with shocking projections on how the highly transmissible Delta variant of Covid-19 could spread. The worst case scenario was almost 700,000 cases and more than 2,000 deaths over July, August and September.

There were more optimistic scenarios outlined but Nphet advised that a system of vaccine passes should be devised before indoor hospitality resumes.

What did Nphet say?

Chief medical officer Tony Holohan’s letter to Government highlighted measures due to be eased on Monday, July 5th, related to “high risk activities” involving “significant levels of social mixing in indoor environments”. It said these indoor activities “should only be permitted for those who have been fully protected by vaccination or who have had a Covid-19 infection in the previous nine months”.

The letter adds: “The planned easing of these measures should only proceed once a robust, non-reproducible and enforceable system of verification of vaccination or immunity status can be put in place to support this.”

And if this is not deemed feasible “the Government should consider pausing further easing of these measures until such a system can be instituted”.

How did the Government respond?

Cabinet agreed to Nphet’s recommendation and committed to developing a plan for a workable vaccine pass system by July 19th. This does not mean indoor hospitality will reopen on that date, just that a plan is to be ready by then.

Total doses distributed to Ireland Total doses administered in Ireland
8,557,330 7,297,243

Hospital Report

Confirmed cases in hospital Confirmed cases in ICU
473 97

How did the hospitality industry respond?

With anger. Restaurants Association of Ireland chief executive Adrian Cummins questioned the legality of the requirement for a vaccine pass and how it was going to be policed. The Licensed Vintners Association (LVA) said it would reject any move to separate out the vaccinated from the non-vaccinated, describing the suggestion as “ridiculous and unworkable”. Ministers have promised to engage with the industry on the vaccine pass system.

Any reasons for why July 19th is the target date for a plan to be ready?

This is the day that Ireland has committed to implementing the European Union’s Digital Covid Certificate allowing for non-essential international travel to resume. It is also the target date for the completion of second doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine for people in their 60s, the last significant vulnerable group that have not been fully protected. The AstraZeneca vaccine provides much greater protection from Delta once the second dose is given.

Will the plan be ready by then?

That remains to be seen but given the short timeframe sceptics would suggest it’s unlikely.

What ideas are being mooted for the vaccine pass system?

Perhaps the most obvious solution is one mooted by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar which would be to adapt the EU’s Digital Covid Certificate for use with domestic services.

Is this feasible?

Potentially. The cert is designed prove for the purposes of international travel that a person is either vaccinated, has recovered from a bout of Covid recently and therefore has some immunity or has had a negative Covid-19 test. It will include a Quick Response or QR code with the relevant information that can be stored on a person’s smartphone and checked using special software that can run from an app. In theory – as happened in Israel earlier this year – businesses could scan a QR code included as part of the EU’s Digital Covid Certificate that has a person’s vaccination status.

Would there be any problems with that?

It was was discontinued in Israel at the start of June due to concerns over its operation there. Publicans and restauranteurs may not want to be the policemen of such a system and there’s the question of whether the gardaí would end up being asked to do spot checks in pubs to make sure it’s being enforced. What’s to stop someone seeking entry to a pub or restaurant using a phone belonging someone who has been vaccinated? Data protection and privacy concerns may also arise.

Any other options?

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan did not rule out an approach centred on guidance during a RTÉ radio interview on Wednesday, saying: “I think we should look at a variety of different options.” Put to him this would clash with Nphet’s recommendation that the system be enforceable he said it’s up to the Government to bring in the system and “it’s not Nphet’s job to decide how we do that.” He said during the same interview that guidance and measures being enforced collectively by the public has served Ireland well during the pandemic.

What about younger people who have not been vaccinated, including children?

The Government has pointed to the change in advice to allow AstraZeneca and Jannsen (Johnson & Johnson) to be used with the under-40s as a measure that will speed up the process of full protection for all adults. There are currently no plans to vaccinate children. Varadkar has suggested there could be an exemption allowing under-6s to eat indoors in a restaurant but it could be difficult to extend this to older children who are more impacted by the virus.

Does the Government think a vaccine pass system is legal?

Varadkar said initial advice from Attorney General Paul Gallagher is that it is lawful. “We’ll have to obviously pass certain laws to do it” but the indication is that it wouldn’t be unconstitutional.