UKHospitality's Kate Nicholls on vaccine passports in domestic hospitality: they would be costly, damaging to revenue and ineffective at containing the spread of Covid-19

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor

Kate Nicholls on how UKHospitality and industry bodies' effective communications with the government have kept the worst of restrictions away - and what measures they would like to see to support businesses through the winter months

Note: This interview was conducted on Friday, 26th November 2021. Since then, the government has announced new measures to curb the spread of the virus in England, including the mandatory wearing of masks on public transport and in shops.

Yesterday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced that mandatory facemasks would not be extended to wider hospitality settings in England - at least for the next three weeks - despite the emergence of the Omnicom variant of the coronavirus.

This follows on the Scottish and Welsh governments' recent decision not to require the use of Covid passports in domestic hospitality settings, as the pressure on businesses would be too high.

We spoke to UKHospitality CEO Kate Nicholls - also the co-chair of the London Tourism Recovery Board and the hospitality sector's Disability Ambassador as appointed by the government - about the industry body's ongoing efforts to contain the effects of restrictions on hospitality.

The organisation hopes the government will be receptive to its campaign to keep Covid passports out of wider hospitality, or, should the science point to them becoming necessary to curb the spread of the virus, be willing to compensate businesses for the additional workforce required to enforce them.

Q -  Is it not understandable that people want the safety and reassurance offered by vaccine passports? Would businesses not benefit from their implementation?

A - In England, the policy under plan A is for matters of Covid certification and vaccine passports to be the choice of the venue to be able to implement them if they want to, on a voluntary basis. 

You have seen lots of large business events, conferences, theatres and cinemas who's adopted this policy on a voluntary basis. 

If that's right for their business activity and for their customer base [...] it's available for people to do on a voluntary basis and that is the right approach, as part of an individual assessment by the venue, as part of its risk assessment. 

That applies more widely - if businesses would like to adopt it and feel that is appropriate then the tools are available to them. It's a very different question to 'should it be mandated in those circumstances,' which is what the government's Plan B looks at doing if cases rise and if there are issues of concern around the management of Covid in the economy.

Q - Why, as an industry body, do you think that - as it stands - Covid passports are a bad idea within domestic hospitality settings, from a logistical and moral point of view?

When we're looking at mandatory Covid passports, that has really significant impacts for the business. As they operate, that is at point of entry not at point of sale, so there is a significant cost to businesses for enhanced staff at the door and security to be able to manage that, and we've seen from the mass events in Scotland and in Wales where vaccine passports apply, you are seeing a slowdown of the processing going through. 

Because you've got 100 percent checks on customers coming through, you're having to double the number of staff you've got available on the door in order to cope with that, and the cost of doing business significantly increases because you've got to invest in that staffing to be able to man people at the door. 

For the larger events in Scotland and Wales and for the nightclubs where that applies, that's a significant increase in costs. If that were to be applied in more domestic hospitality which Scotland and Wales were looking at for pubs bars and restaurants, that would be an even more significant cost, because they don't traditionally have door staff or security staff to be able to man the door and turn customers away. 

You would be diverting staff resources there and the cost would significantly increase - we estimated that staffing costs would increase by about 20 percent.

The second aspect of cost to the business is that this doesn't just apply to the customers, this applies to staff, so you need to be doing regular checks on staff, both in terms of vaccine passports of those who are vaccinated.

But because our staff tend to be a younger age group, you're also going to be relying on lateral flow tests because a large proportion of them won't be fully vaccinated - particularly if this means your third jab, you've got differentials that you're looking at there in terms of the age of your employee base.

In England the proposal is that those lateral flow tests would have to be supervised and would have to be done in the venue before you work on a shift or there would have to be a video supervision to make sure that the person doing the test tallies with the test result that you're showing - so again, a significant bureaucratic impact for the managers of those sites to be able to record lateral flow tests for the staff.

Then we do know that people are having to turn away customers on a regular basis because they can't meet vaccine or lateral flow test requirements in advance. 

People are turning away business at the door - and people are refusing to go out to those businesses in Wales and Scotland - and that's not just those that are not vaccinated, but people who refuse to go somewhere where they have a vaccine check. 

The customer has a moral objection to it - in Wales and Scotland we're seeing revenues down by 15 to 20 percent in those venues where they are mandated to have them - so it has an impact not just on cost but it has an impact on revenues for businesses that are already struggling to break even. 

Q - Is there any instance in which you would support the implementation of Covid passports in hospitality, should, for instance, cases rises to unmanageable levels and the alternative presented be the closure of businesses?

A - I would have to be led by the science on that as to what the government decides to do, but the research that has come out from SAGE suggests that vaccine passports are not an effective tool at preventing transmission and infection - and that other measures are more acceptable.

Then it would be a trade-off between how do you keep the business open and trading and what is viable - and that will be dependent on different events, different activities as to whether a vaccine passport is the most effective tool, or whether other measures such as social distancing could be more effective. 

If at that point the government decides that it is necessary to trigger Plan B and move towards those restrictions, we need to have support for those businesses that are directly affected, because the costs and the revenue hit are so significant that you would raise into question business viability unless you had that actual support. 

While there is more support in Scotland and Wales currently, it's still not enough to offset the cost of vaccine passports on their businesses. If it was introduced in England - where our support measures are much lower at the moment; no furlough, no grants, very limited amounts of business rates relief - in Scotland and Wales it's 100 percent, in England it's 60 and it's dropping back to 50 percent.

You would want to see the government stepping up and doing that economic assessment alongside the health impact assessment. 

Q - And as it stands, does Plan B not include provisions for potentially necessary support for businesses?

A - No. At the moment it just looks at - potentially - vaccine passports, work from home and a return of masks and it could be one or all of those things.

There would be a significant impact for businesses and we would want the government to be putting forward at the same time as they make that decision, the support measures that would be necessary to get businesses through that - then businesses can make a decision about their viability going forward. 

Q - Assumedly you had a part to play in the devolved governments' decisions not to pursue Covid passes in wider hospitality. 

A - We did, and we're very pleased that the devolved administrations worked with the industry, listened to the industry and took appropriate action. That would have been devastating, particularly in the run-up to Christmas. 

We're pleased that no decision has been taken on that yet, we would like both governments to rule that out in perpetuity. 

Q - Given how much more cautious those governments have been throughout the pandemic, do you think this means that the likelihood of the implementation of Covid passports in England is low?

A - The government in Westminster has made clear that Plan B is their contingency plan, so it's not off the table, but they don't see any need to trigger it at the moment. 

Certainly having vaccine passports doesn't seem to have made any significant difference to infection levels or case rates - and that suggests that it's not necessarily an effective method of control if the situation is worsening so we're heartened by that. 

It's positive that they haven't extended restrictions, we'd like them to give us a timetable for the removal of vaccine passports in those mandated venues given the impact it's having on viability and consumer confidence. We are looking forward shortly in Scotland to the next budget announcement - we would like to see the announcement of support to offset the cost of vaccine passports are there. 

We would like to see the exit strategy for coming out of vaccine passports rather than leaving them in for a long time, the next focus is on what is the business support available. 

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Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox

Deputy Editor 30th November 2021

UKHospitality's Kate Nicholls on vaccine passports in domestic hospitality: they would be costly, damaging to revenue and ineffective at containing the spread of Covid-19