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Government: Covid pass is ‘last resort’ in higher education

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The Dutch government is only going to make Covid passes mandatory for higher education institutions as a last resort. Students and staff will then not need to be consulted, stated the cabinet in a letter to the House of Representatives.

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The Dutch Parliament drew up a long list of questions about the possibility of making Covid passes mandatory in higher education institutions. The government was quick to answer those questions, notably by making all the answers roughly the same.

The cabinet regards the introduction of Covid passes in higher education as a step not to be taken lightly, Minister of Health Hugo de Jonge assured the House. In his written answers, the expression ‘last resort’ appears more than fifty times.

Moreover, the House of Representatives can still intervene after the proposed legal amendment, as the government will submit the decision to the Parliament first. De Jonge underlines that the Parliament has “a de facto right of veto”.

Fully online
Following the legal amendment, co-participation councils within the educational institutions will no longer be entitled to have a say about the Covid pass. The government considers this to be a better option because it will speed up the introduction of the pass and avoid “having to go back to a situation in which students are once again reliant solely on online teaching”.

As to be expected, many questions were raised about the need to bypassing the universities' councils. Political party SP, for example, wondered why can't the government wait a few days to make sure the councils are heard. The answer: the decision will be made by the government, not by the Executive Board, so the university council should not be involved.

Parties PVV and JA21 find that the government is thereby undermining the co-participation councils, but De Jonge does not see that as a problem. “The fact that the university council has no formal role does not mean that there will be no opportunity to discuss the best method to implement these measures at the institution.”

Wiggle room
Centre-left party D66 assumed it could find wiggle room in the latter statement. The party is usually in favour of co-participation councils, but it seems to prefer not to confront the government directly in this case. The party asked whether the educational institutions still have room for their own policy, meaning they could make their own decisions about which classes to give face-to-face and which ones to give online, even if Covid passes are made mandatory. The implicit message was that the co-participation councils would have their say on that matter.

There is some truth in that, according to De Jonge’s answers. The educational institutions will be obliged to use the Covid pass (except in the case of exams, vulnerable students and specific practical training), but they are still free to choose how to give their classes, which means they can be online too.

“However, face-to-face teaching is very important for the development and wellbeing of students”, De Jonge writes. “So, the vast majority of curricula include a considerable face-to-face component. The guiding principle is that institutions should make an effort to shape their education as they would do under normal circumstances.”

Dutch universities warned once more last week that Covid passes are going to be hard to implement in practice. They suggest carrying out random checks, so that they do not have to check every single student every time. The government is unwilling to anticipate that situation.

Elderly people
Working against the bill is the fact that the Outbreak Management Team (OMT), the team of experts advising the Dutch government on how to tackle the pandemic, are sceptic about the benefits and the need for a Covid pass.

It is “not a measure to prevent the virus from spreading and combat a pandemic”, admits De Jonge. Besides, the pass is less useful among youngsters than among the elderly. Even so, the government concluded that the Covid pass can nevertheless slow the virus down.  It is seen as part of an “extensive toolbox” to combat the spread of the virus.

Universities have not been hotbeds of Covid-19 transmissions. The green party, GroenLinks, inquired how many infections and hospital admissions the government expected to prevent with the introduction of a Covid pass in higher education institutions.

The government answered that it is impossible to say, because a variety of measures are being taken simultaneously. “Individual parts can never be calculated, as the OMT has stated repeatedly”, writes the cabinet. “In addition, contextual factors such as vaccination rate, seasonal effects and mutations play a significant role in the effectiveness of measures.”

Distinction
Party SGP asked a question about the risk of discriminating between vaccinated and unvaccinated students. The fear of a visible distinction is understandable, was the government's answer, “but, in our view, the risk is slight” as students who do not want to get vaccinated can always get tested.

It remains to be seen whether the House of Representatives will be satisfied with the answers. A debate has not been scheduled yet.

Another draft bill is to be deferred by the Christmas holidays. In it, the government plans for some sectors (not including education) to switch to 2G instead of 3G, which means people would only be able to gain access to those establishments if they are vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19. Only getting tested would no longer suffice. That bill is unlikely to get a majority.

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