What Could A UK “Vaccine Passport” System Actually Look Like?
After months of contradictory messaging on vaccine passports, Boris Johnson has confirmed that so-called “covid status certificates” are under consideration.
Setting out his roadmap out of lockdown, the Prime Minister said that a review was in the works to “consider the potential role of Covid status certification in helping venues to open safely” while also being “mindful of the many concerns surrounding exclusion, discrimination, and privacy”.
On Monday, the European Union announced plans for a "digital green pass" that would provide “proof that a person has been vaccinated” against Covid-19, as well as details of tests, and “should facilitate Europeans‘ lives”.
Regardless of what you call them – Covid status certificates, vaccine passports or immunity cards, digital green pass – the proposal remains largely the same: a piece of documentation, either physical or digital, which can be used to prove you have some form of immunity against Covid-19 in order to access a place or service.
The UK government has denied at least 11 times that vaccine passports were in the works, but by mid-February there were reports that the Cabinet Office was discussing just such a plan.
What could they look like in the UK, where might they be used, and will we really need one to return to normal life?
How could the vaccine passport work?
When people talk about passports the most obvious image is that of a bound paper booklet. Just such a document for vaccines is already required by many states as a condition of entry to prove inoculation against diseases like yellow fever and polio.
But, when it comes to a coronavirus passport, most governments and companies are envisioning some form of app. So why go digital?
The simple answer is that paper documents or rubber stamps are much easier to fake. Numerous cases of criminals selling fake Covid-19 test results, allowing travellers to dodge international restrictions, have already been reported by EU law enforcement agency Europol.
EU law enforcement agency Europol recently warned that it had already seen numerous cases of criminals selling fake Covid-19 test results to allow travellers to dodge international restrictions. Paper vaccination documents or stamps in a passport are equally at risk of such fraud.
If the UK is stuck for inspiration regarding a vaccine passport app it could look to Israel, where citizens can now enjoy many newly-reopened activities provided they prove their vaccination status using a government-backed digital ‘Green Pass’.
The plus side of the Israeli model is that it’s fairly simple: a unique QR code is issued once you’ve had two vaccine doses and is available via the official Ramzor (Traffic Light) app or the Ministry of Health website. Those without internet access can also get theirs via an automated hotline.
However, no accommodations are available for those either unable or unwilling to take the coronavirus vaccine. In fact, the country’s health minister Yuli Edelstein has publicly stated that “whoever does not get vaccinated will be left behind”, arguing that it is a citizens “moral duty” to take the vaccine.Much like Israel, the UK is reportedly considering adding a feature to an existing app rather than creating something from scratch. The Times reports that the preferred option is the existing NHS app allowing users to provide their vaccination status to businesses and venues.
This core app — used to book GP appointments and view medical records — is separate from the NHS Covid-19 contact tracing app, and is the favourable choice as it already holds personal medical data as well as the necessary privacy features to protect it.
Plus, it already has the capabilities for digital health passports built in. Facial recognition software was added to the app by developers iProov in May 2020, and the company said at the time that the technology could be used for Covid-19 immunity passports in the future.
iProov announced in January that trials of such passports, developed alongside fellow tech firm Mvine, were already underway, with a view to finish by the end of March 2021.
But this isn’t the only project on the government’s radar. In total, the government’s science and research funding agency Innovate UK has handed out £450,000 of funding to eight similar ventures, of which £75,000 has gone to iProov and Mvine.
There are a number of frontrunners already vying for this new space in the market and trying to solve the two biggest stumbling blocks: verification and security. How do you, on an international scale, authenticate somebody’s medical data, link that data to their identity, and do so without compromising their privacy?
Companies like AOKpass and CommonPass — which are already being trialled in airports around the world — offer up a scannable QR code which provides only a yes or no answer to the scanning party regarding the holder’s coronavirus status. The user’s personal and medical data are verified separately by the company and so isn’t displayed to airports and airlines when travelling.
UK-based firm VST Enterprises, however, is wary of “unregulated” QR codes, choosing to secure health data on the V-Health Passport with its own patented VCode technology (which is reportedly capable of producing 2.2 quintillion unique scannable codes).
Who supports vaccine passports?
Airports are likely to be the first setting where people will use a digital health passport in the future. Unsurprisingly, the decimated aviation and tourism sectors have been among the strongest advocates for their introduction.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported a collective $84.3 billion (£60.5 billion) in losses in the first four months of the pandemic alone, and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) described 2020 as the “worst year in tourism history” with 1 billion fewer international arrivals compared to the previous year.
The driver of this decline has been border restrictions brought in to halt international transmission of the virus. Currently, the only way around this in most cases is by providing a negative Covid-19 test or self-isolating upon arrival. But could vaccines make all of these measures obsolete?
“Vaccination is a fundamental key to safely reopening borders and stimulating economic recovery,” Alexandre de Juniac, director-general of the IATA, said in a letter to EU leaders.
“A pan-European mutually recognised vaccination certificate would be an important step towards giving governments the confidence to safely open their borders, and passengers the confidence to fly without the barrier of quarantine”.
Back on the ground, many in some of the UK’s hardest-hit sectors see vaccine passports as a workable way to get their businesses open again.
The only other option on the table for some larger venues such as nightclubs and theatres is mass testing upon entry. Indeed, the Prime Minister has even suggested that 30-minute lateral flow tests could be used to open up “those parts of the economy we couldn't get open last year”.But, leaders at many of the UKs largest cultural venues say this option is unworkable unless the government offers extra help, with Royal Albert Hall chief executive Craig Hassall telling the i that mass testing “was prohibitively expensive and took too long”.
“The situation remains dire right across the events and entertainment sector,” said Mark Davyd, CEO of the Music Venue Trust.
“Economically viable events can’t happen with social distancing, and vaccine verification is one of a number of tools which venues can use to get back to full capacity so we can reopen every venue safely.”
There’s an appetite for them in the hospitality sector, too. A senior industry figure told PoliticsHome that numerous chains and venues had told them they were planning on introducing vaccine certification, saying they were “absolutely certain that that’s what we will be doing by the summer".
Economically viable events can’t happen with social distancing, and vaccine verification is one of a number of tools which venues can use to get back to full capacity
- Mark Davyd, CEO of the Music Venue Trust
Large sporting events will see their attendance capped once they reopen from 17 May, either to 10,000 people or a quarter of their capacity, whichever is lower. Events such as the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, however, can attract over 140,000 visitors in a normal year.
Could vaccine passports be a way around these caps? "It's something that fans would absolutely consider if it gives them a chance to go and see their sport, whatever that is,” Stuart Pringle, the track’s managing director, told Sky Sports News.
He continued: "There has been talk between me and other sports and the government about whether our electronic ticket systems could be linked to the data that is provided by a passport.”
"It's not straightforward, but it's probably possible. So that's something I would vote for."
Who is against vaccine passports?
Critics of vaccine passports argue that, domestically, it simply isn’t workable for theatres, gyms and the like to handle sensitive medical data.
"Vaccine passports could be useful in helping open up international travel more quickly, if used alongside other measures,” a UKHospitality spokesperson told The Caterer magazine.
“We do not think that such a measure is going to be appropriate for day-to-day hospitality businesses, though… Mandatory use of a vaccine passport will likely lead to headaches, place an extra burden on staff and cut revenue needlessly at a time when businesses cannot afford it."
Businesses with a younger demographic are also concerned that the prioritisation of the vaccine rollout means they would have to wait to welcome back their core customer base.
If you are 23 you might not be vaccinated until August or September, so that doesn’t really help the industry.
- Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA)
“Because people are not going to be vaccinated in age groups that we attract, the idea of vaccine passports won’t be helpful [when restrictions are lifted],” said Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA).
“If you are 23 you might not be vaccinated until August or September, so that doesn’t really help the industry.”
This leads to broader concerns regarding discrimination. In a recent report, the Royal Society set out 12 criteria for a viable vaccine passport which included that it must be affordable, abide by existing laws, and meet basic ethical standards.
“Understanding what a vaccine passport could be used for is a fundamental question – is it literally a passport to allow international travel or could it be used domestically to allow holders greater freedoms,” said Melinda Mills, one of the reports authors.
“The intended use will have significant implications across a wide range of legal and ethical issues that need to be fully explored and could inadvertently discriminate or exacerbate existing inequalities.”
Data privacy is also included on the list, and is one reason that talk of vaccine passports has raised alarm bells among civil liberties groups.
“We're fundamentally against the idea that we should reopen into a two-tier society where people who can't or won't have the vaccine are going to be denied the most basic of rights and liberties,” Silkie Carlo, director of campaign group Big Brother Watch, told PoliticsHome.
“Rather than having a positive national conversation about how society can start to free itself again, instead there's a lot of anxiety about the level of state coercion that we're going to experience and what kind of rights and liberties people are going to have.”