Vaccine Passports: The next policy step in managing the pandemic?

Are vaccine passports the next big policy tool in the response to Covid-19? Now large-scale vaccine rollouts have started, there is talk in public policy circles that vaccine passports are the next obvious step in returning to normality.

In the United States, some of the country’s largest tech firms and healthcare organizations have established the Vaccine Credential Initiative, with the aim of creating a digital vaccine passport specifically for smart phones. There are recent reports that the Danish Ministry of Health is working on a digital passport, which will launch early this year. And the EU is already looking at a Greek proposal for vaccine verification to allow “freedom of movement”. Despite the UK Government publicly playing down vaccine passports, Innovate UK, the Government’s science and research funding agency, is said to have invested a seed sum in a trial

Before diving into the detail, it is worth reminding ourselves of a key feature of the vaccines – although we know it protects individuals from illness, its effectiveness in stopping transmission is still unknown. Vaccines and any associated ‘passports’ should be considered in this context and understood as a possible tool to ensure the safe mixing of those that have received the necessary jabs in an effort to re-open the economy, whilst managing the ongoing public health concerns.

Whether or not the plethora of vaccine passport initiatives result in their widespread introduction, it is clear the idea is under serious consideration. This interest has manifested in a lively public debate, with some arguing that vaccine passports are a critical tool in revitalising the economy, whilst others contend that allocation of passports may be inequitable and raise age old questions regarding civil liberties.

Who gives them out? Who gets one? Who gets to see who’s got one? How do we ensure that they are secure? There is a maze of practical, policy and ethical issues raised by vaccine passports. The most fundamental questions are, however, can and - perhaps more interestingly - should these issues be overcome?   

Those in favour of such a policy hit on the benefits to local economies. In simple terms, if large swathes of the vaccinated population have a passport proving their inoculation, in theory these same people can mix safe in the knowledge that they would not be at risk of contracting the disease. It is no surprise that those in the hospitality industry are amongst the vaccine passports’ most vocal cheerleaders.

As it is those already vaccinated who will receive ‘passports’, most holders will be drawn from older age groups. Will younger age groups take this perceived inequity with magnanimity? Will we suddenly see a spike in pensioners hitting nightclubs? Stanger things have happened over the past year.

Unsuprisingly, the hospitality industry can find plenty of allies in the travel industry. The World Economic Forum and five airlines are already backing an initiative called CommonPass that closely resembles a vaccine passport. The more people who can travel securely, the quicker airlines, taxi firms and associated sectors can rebound from the pandemic. The focus on international travel lends the policy a truly global angle. Governments which use vaccine passports as the basis for opening up travel will need to co-ordinate with each other over the validity, security and interoperability of their respective passports.

Vaccine passports also have clear implications for how the workforce which cannot work from home operates. Of course, this plays into the broader question about who should be prioritised for vaccinations. Debates continue in different territories about whether those who must work in environments where social contact is unavoidable should be fast-tracked to receive a vaccine. Nonetheless, if implemented, vaccine passports could give organisations a means to determine how they can most safely deploy their staff as more and more people receive injections.

The notion of a ‘vaccine passport’ conjures up images of paper documentation. The reality is more akin to a digital ‘wallet’, presented through an app, which verifies an individual has been inoculated. A simple idea, strewn with complexities. For such a system to succeed, there would need to be largescale take up from citizens; the extent of which will depend on whether citizens trust that their data will be protected and safely secured. However, it may be that citizens are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to a system which, if taken up, could afford a level of freedom akin to pre-pandemic days.

This brings us onto delivery. In most instances, it is likely that governments will need to partner with external organisations, especially in the development of any app and management of the data. This will raise questions of what type of information is held by the app, which organisations are responsible for protecting this information, and how it is uploaded. This is especially apposite in light of the growing debate about the use and storage of citizen’s data more generally. These questions illustrate how the successful take-up of vaccine passports will rely on careful messaging from governments.

Digital identity companies - those with the proprietary technology to develop the apps that could hold a vaccine passport - contest that vaccine passports would consist exclusively of the information necessary to prove inoculation; that is, a certificate approved by a medical professional combined with a picture of the passport holder.

Proof of Covid-19 vaccination would be in-line with the requirements for evidence of inoculation against other diseases when it comes to international travel. Covid-19 vaccine passports are the translation of this idea into the era of the pandemic, the 21st century and the domestic policy setting.

In the round, the technical issues of creating a secure, user friendly inoculation passport are probably the easier parts. Far harder are the policy issues of privacy, disenfranchisement, ethical objections, and unintended use (or perhaps misuse).  The jury is out on whether we can get to an agreed global standard for interoperability to prevent travellers having to register on multiple counties own vaccination passports. There is probably a small window before the rich countries have vaccinated sufficient people to open up their economies and interest in vaccination passports wanes, leaving the poorer countries with a requirement not only to continue vaccinating but also to potentially implement a vaccine passport system so their populations can travel to richer countries. 

As technical barriers are overcome, the legal and ethical questions will spark a lively debate, but with the appetite so high for anything that takes populations one step closer to ‘normality’, governments could find themselves pushing at an open door when it comes to vaccine passport acceptance.  

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