As vaccinations increase in pace around the world, the idea of ”vaccine passes” is gaining momentum among governments and industries looking for a way out of suspensions, curfews and travel bans. But while some see it as a potential ticket to freedom, others fear that such documentation could exclude or discriminate against those most vulnerable to the pandemic.
With vaccinations well under way, governments are increasingly seeing vaccination “passports” – or other forms of Covid-19 status certificates – as a way out of the suspension cycles and curfews that have made many prisoners in their own homes and founded global industry almost halted.
The certificates would enable people to show proof of vaccination and thus skip quarantine protocols when they arrive in a new country.
Some countries have already introduced such policies, with Iceland as the first European nation to issue vaccine certificates at the end of January. On Tuesday, Greece presented a digital vaccination certificate for those who have received two doses of the vaccine. Among the countries currently issuing or requesting vaccine certificates are Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden.
Across the English Channel, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Monday that his government would consider Covid-19 as a “status certificate” as a way out of the health crisis.
But Johnson also tried to allay fears that certificates could marginalize those who could not receive the Covid-19 injection, saying a UK government review would be “aware of the many concerns about exclusion, discrimination and integrity”.
Ana Beduschi, associate lawyer at the University of Exeter in the UK who published a study on the ethics of vaccine passports, said there were serious questions about their impact on human rights and data protection.
“It can be argued that [vaccine passports] could preserve the freedoms of those who do not have the disease or have been vaccinated, says Beduschi. “But if some people do not have access to or can afford Covid-19 tests or vaccines, they will not be able to prove their health status, and thus their freedoms will be de facto restricted.”
The same issues were flagged in a study published by the Royal Society on Friday in which researchers advised governments to immediately consider important criteria for vaccination certification. The criteria include certification of immunity, protection of data and protection against loss of work if people were not vaccinated for health reasons or personal beliefs.
“We do not advocate for or against, but we say that this will happen. Countries have already introduced it, companies are already saying they will include it in their contracts. We need to open this up and discuss it, says Professor Melinda Mills, lead author of the study and director of the Leverhulme Center for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford.
France is holding back
But when some countries push forward, others hold back. In France, the debate on vaccine certification has polarized opinion.
Health Minister Olivier Véran has repeatedly said that it is too early to discuss vaccination passes because fewer than 2.5 million French people have received a first dose and because it is still unclear whether the vaccine prevents transmission.
This is a view shared by Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Commission.
France’s state secretary for European affairs, Clément Beaune, told the Franceinfo news channel on January 17 that the government was “very reluctant” to introduce vaccination passports. He said it would not support a program that would give some people rights and not others.
When asked about a passport that would enable the inoculated to participate in cultural events, French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot was unequivocal in saying that it would be “an attack on our freedoms”.
“As a lover of freedom, I can hardly imagine it. If it came to that, it would be a step backwards, she told France 2 in an interview on February 10.
But six out of ten French people would favor a vaccination pass if it meant they could circulate more freely, according to an Ifop survey last month.
No consensus in the EU
There is still no consensus within the EU, despite increased pressure from some Member States, which are keen to start tourism.
The European Commission says it will not rush a passport decision while leaving such a large part of its population unvaccinated. Within the EU, about only 3% of Europeans have received a Covid-19 vaccination.
Instead, the 27 EU Member States are sticking to an agreement reached on 28 January on a set of principles for “vaccination certificates against Covid-19”.
These certificates provide standardized evidence of vaccination “for medical purposes” and can be used if a person receives a second dose of the vaccine in a country other than the one they received the first.
However, these documents do not allow the vaccinated to travel freely in Europe.
Not surprisingly, the travel industry is pushing hard for some form of vaccine pass after experiencing crushing losses due to the pandemic. Some airlines, such as the Australian airline Qantas, said they would make vaccination documentation mandatory on all flights while Gulf Air, Emirates and Etihad will test a travel card designed by the International Air Transport Association, IATA Travel Pass.
European tourism got a huge hit last year with record falls in arrivals of between 51 percent and 85 percent, according to the European Travel Commission.
Hopes of returning to a new normal in 2021 have disappeared with the reintroduction of European barriers and curfews. In its latest international forecast, IATA predicts that Europe will suffer the most from aviation crashes in 2021, with an estimated loss of $ 11.9 billion.
Other companies are also looking at digital passports – such as concert halls, sports venues, theaters and gyms – to reassure customers and prevent the spread of the virus. Israel said its version of a vaccine, the Green Badge, would be used to give its citizens access to places of worship, gyms, bars and other cultural events.
Even when governments look to certification to help them resume business and social life, there are major challenges ahead if the system is to gain traction globally. The WHO, for its part, has stated its opposition “for the time being” to the introduction of vaccine certificates as a condition for allowing international travelers to enter other countries.
But experts like Dakota Gruener, from the global public-private partnership ID2020, are currently working with the WHO to establish proposals and global standards. Gruener said two proposals would likely be considered: one a document showing evidence of a negative Covid-19 test and the other showing that you have been vaccinated. A downloadable QR code would allow access, but for those without smartphones, paper versions would be accepted.
A similar proposal was launched late last year when the World Economic Forum and the Commons Project Foundation, a Swiss non-profit group, began testing a digital health passport called CommonPass, which generated a QR code that could be displayed to border control authorities.
Integrity and inequality
It seems inevitable that some form of certificate or passport will be a prerequisite if people are ever to be able to participate in public life again.
Alison Thompson, a bioethicist and associate professor at the University of Toronto, said that while vaccine passes may seem inevitable, this should not prevent a serious and ongoing debate about how they are used.
“What we’re really talking about here is allowing people with passport rights and privileges who will not be available to people who do not have a vaccine passport,” she said in an interview with CBC Radio.
“And given that there are huge inequalities in the availability of vaccines globally … you know, this raises all sorts of concerns as to whether this will be fair – not just if it will be confidential information.”
Ultimately, she said, the decision will be up to the legislators. But she said “discrimination laws and fundamental human rights need to be closely scrutinized to determine how you can use this type of technology properly”.
As countries struggle with new virus strains, vaccine delays, logistical blockages and economic downturn, it seems certain that the debate on vaccine passports will only become more urgent.