Northern Ireland vaccine pass confusion fears ahead of looming legal change on Monday

Confusion around covid certification passes could drive customers away when the new rules become law on Monday, hospitality businesses fear.

Confusion around covid certification passes could drive customers away when the new rules become law on Monday, hospitality businesses fear.

The certification requirements, dubbed vaccine passports, have been in effect since November 29 but only become legally enforceable from Monday in Northern Ireland.

It means that before being permitted to enter pubs, licensed restaurants and other venues, by law people must show either proof of vaccination, natural immunity from a previous infection, or a negative test result.

A Covid vaccine passport

But there are fears that confusion around the rules could drive customers away and leave less technically proficient and often elderly members of the public out in the cold.

And amid those fears came a last minute update, announced after 5pm last night, of ‘digital recovery certificates’ and certificates being made available for those unable to take the vaccine.

Co Antrim publican Stephen Reynolds, a prominent member of the industry body Hospitality Ulster and the owner of the Front Page Bar in Ballymena, expressed his fears for the looming change to the News Letter.

“I would know first-hand from Hospitality Ulster that the Executive had indicated there would be a marketing campaign to make everybody across Northern Ireland, the general population, aware of what’s required,” he said. “But the impression I get is that the general public is not aware. There’s total confusion about what’s acceptable, what’s not acceptable, what they have to do and what the rules are.

Vaccination card

“My understanding is that the blue vaccination card is acceptable but this is somewhere there’s confusion — I know a lot of hospitality businesses are not accepting the blue vaccination card. It really is going to be a nightmare.”

This point was clarified by the Department of Health in last night’s update — the cards given on the day of vaccination are acceptable.

Dr Alan Stout, who chairs the British Medical Association’s GP committee in Northern Ireland, said he is aware some people have had difficulty obtaining proof of vaccination for technical reasons but stressed the positives of the new policy.

The certification requirements, dubbed vaccine passports, have been in effect since November 29 but only become legally enforceable from Monday in Northern Ireland.

Customers have their passports check as they enter the Nandos Restaurant in Belfast City Centre. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

It means that before being permitted to enter pubs, licensed restaurants and other venues, by law people must show either proof of vaccination, natural immunity from a previous infection, or a negative test result.

But there are fears that confusion around the rules could drive customers away and leave less technically proficient and often elderly members of the public out in the cold.

And amid those fears came a last minute update, announced after 5pm last night, of ‘digital recovery certificates’ and certificates being made available for those unable to take the vaccine.

Co Antrim publican Stephen Reynolds, a prominent member of the industry body Hospitality Ulster and the owner of the Front Page Bar in Ballymena, expressed his fears for the looming change to the News Letter.

“I would know first-hand from Hospitality Ulster that the Executive had indicated there would be a marketing campaign to make everybody across Northern Ireland, the general population, aware of what’s required,” he said. “But the impression I get is that the general public is not aware. There’s total confusion about what’s acceptable, what’s not acceptable, what they have to do and what the rules are.

““My understanding is that the blue vaccination card is acceptable but this is somewhere there’s confusion — I know a lot of hospitality businesses are not accepting the blue vaccination card. It really is going to be a nightmare.”

This point was clarified by the Department of Health in last night’s update — the cards given on the day of vaccination are acceptable.

Dr Alan Stout, who chairs the British Medical Association’s GP committee in Northern Ireland, said he is aware some people have had difficulty obtaining proof of vaccination for technical reasons but stressed the positives of the new policy.

Dr Stout said: “There are a number of reasons that some people will not be able to get the QR code. One, quite clearly, is that they might not have a smartphone.

“We have supported this [as a policy] because the principle of this is the more important thing. The principle is that it gives the messaging that vaccination is really important and it has — we’ve seen the evidence — increased the number of people getting those first doses which are so important. And more important now than ever with the new variant.”

Dr Stout added: “There are gaps with the app and with the QR code, but the important thing is that we are maintaining as safe environments as we possibly can.”

Businesses, meanwhile, fear confusion around the rules could scupper hopes of a boost over the Christmas period.

Mr Reynolds said: “It’s divisive, it’s confusing, it’s time consuming.

“We’ve heard so much about Christmas parties being cancelled and I’m getting that first hand from Hospitality Ulster.

“I would worry a lot of people will be thinking about queues, about the need for everybody’s data to be checked, downloading apps, then you have people in the queue who won’t know how to do it so you will have a backlog, and I worry there’s going to be people saying ‘I wouldn’t be bothered with all that’ so they’ll just go to someone’s house for a party.”

“Or you could have people who don’t like the invasion of privacy and sharing of data deciding to just go to a house party where there are no rules, there are no measures.

“Hospitality has been dealt a real blow here in the mouth of Christmas.”

He said staff members had spent the days since the introduction of the policy helping older customers get up to speed with the requirements.

“I have an 84-year-old friend who is a regular customer in the bar and, despite all of our efforts and all of our knowledge, we’re having serious difficulty downloading his covid status app,” he said.

“He’s double-jabbed, he’s boosted, but he’s having real difficulty providing the information and I know he’s not the only one.

“I had another man in his 80s with an old, Nokia phone and he was asking if we could download the app or a paper version for him.

“Over the last number of weeks, my wife and our staff have spent our time with customers — as I know a lot of other community driven publicans would be doing — assisting them with the passes.

“It is mainly the more mature, elderly customers.”

On Monday, Hospitality Ulster chief executive Colin Neill said staff members have already been subjected to threats from customers objecting to the new requirements.

Speaking to Stormont’s finance commmittee, Mr Neill said: “I have seen texts today of threats towards staff about trying to enforce - as we are legally required to do - the proof of Covid certification.

“It is strange that small independent businesses are legally required to enforce Covid rules, when organisations like Translink are not.”

Yesterday, Justice Minister Naomi Long said police would take action against people who abuse staff enforcing coronavirus rules.

Speaking to the BBC, the minister said enforcement of coronavirus rules was not up to her department alone.

“I’m very clear that the police have a role if you are abusive or threatening to people in their workplace because they’ve asked you to do something,” she told the broadcaster.

“That is the law and you’re behaving badly — that is absolutely a case for police to deal with. There is no excuse for abuse, we’re not asking people to do it to make their Christmas miserable.”

She said, however, that it is “unrealistic” to expect her department to manage compliance with the rules on its own.

The Alliance leader added: “We all need to step up and do what’s required of us co-operatively to get through this period.”

Meanwhile, the latest figures from the Department of Health show another 1,806 new coronavirus cases and two new fatalities. That brings the total number of fatalities recorded by the Department to 2,918. The latest figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), meanwhile, show a total death toll of 3,913 by December 3. NISRA’s figures differ from the Department’s in that all fatalities where coronavirus is recorded on a death certificate is recorded, regardless of testing status.