Nightclubs: singled out or just the beginning?

The Scottish Government’s passport plans are fraught with issues and require clarification, writes Jack Cummins

THERE’S one important lesson we’ve learned during the pandemic: when the Scottish Government floats the possibility of new measures, it’s pretty certain that those measures will come to pass.

On that account, the Scottish Licensed Trade Association (SLTA) has every right to be concerned about the planned requirement for so-called “vaccine status certification” in relation to nightclubs and other venues. (You’ve no doubt detected the Scottish Government’s aversion to the expression “vaccine passports”).

So, when Nicola Sturgeon says that the position is being kept “under review” in relation to the wider licensed trade, there’s the red flag. No wonder Colin Wilkinson, the SLTA’s managing director, sees the move as “a threat hanging over the whole of the hospitality industry”. After all, as he pointed out, there are plenty of “pubs, bars and hotels are larger than nightclubs and offer various entertainments”.

And, unsurprisingly, the nightclub sector feels that, once more, it has been singled out for restrictive measures. Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland’s Drivetime programme (September 1), club boss Tony Cochrane said that his industry seemed to be “the bad boys again”, despite trading for just two weeks after an 18-month shutdown.

He also echoed Wilkinson’s comments on the availability of other late-night entertainment venues, predicting that the certification requirement would result in a haemorrhage of customers who would desert clubs for late-opening bars with dancing facilities. That’s a reasonable forecast that might well encourage the Scottish Government to extend the reach of the certificates.

There’s also a timing problem. Floating the possibility of passports is one thing: giving the industry sufficient notice and providing a decent consultation period is another. While Boris Johnson flagged plans for nightclub passports two months before the likely implementation date, the short lead time in Scotland will inevitably cause disruption.

Part of the policy intention is to address the low vaccine update in younger people. But even if unvaccinated club customers decide to get a first dose immediately, they won’t be “fully vaccinated” until the second jab around eight weeks later – although the scheme will be introduced from the end of this month. In all probability, the certificate requirement will also fall on venue staff, some of whom will face a similar timescale problem. In fact, for some “No jab, no job” might just become a reality – at a time when hospitality as a whole is facing worker shortages.

The proposal is due to be debated in the parliament next week, on a date not yet announced. While the Scottish Green Party have previously opposed a passport scheme, their new alignment with the SNP makes it a dead cert that it will go ahead.

Of course, regulations will require to follow; and at that point we’ll see the fine detail where the devil always lies. Are we going to  have a problem with the definition of “nightclub”? Remember the chaos and confusion caused by the meaning of “café” when only licensed cafés could trade during a lockdown period last year?

I truly hope similar uncertainty can be avoided this time round.