How valid is the idea of a vaccine passport?

With the news that Israel is already rolling out vaccine passports to those who have proffered their arm to a needle containing the Covid-19 vaccine, the issue of vaccine passports rages on in the news here and abroad.

Israel’s “green pass” allows its bearer entry to bars, hotels, swimming pools – wherever has the desire to block entry to half its unvaccinated population. With a population of 9 million, it won’t be long until some will only remain unvaccinated by choice. If you want to visit a shopping centre or a museum, you can regardless of your vaccination status, but gyms and hotels, theatres, bars and restaurants will not grant you access unless you’ve had the jab. 

Masks are still a common sight in Israel, but the older generation are now flaunting their vaccinated status by shunning them, at least when outdoors. 

Not everything is back to normal, though – some spaces still have Covid limits on numbers indoors and gyms are spaced out – many businesses report that the introduction of the scheme hasn’t lead to a boom in business like they had hoped. Consumer confidence in indoor spaces is still low.

So what of the idea of a green pass for the UK? Israel’s model is similar to the one proposed to be added to the existing NHS app and Johnson’s government is launching a review into Covid status certificates beginning today, 1 March 2020. 

With some people unable to receive vaccinations due to their own medical status, however, it remains unclear how the scheme could ever work and respect their needs, aside from those who decide not to have it for other reasons. Johnson said he would be “mindful” of concerns around “privacy, exclusion and discrimination”.

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi had previously denied the government had any plans to introduce any schemes to give more freedoms to the vaccinated, stating “that’s not how we do things in the UK”. 

“I know fervent libertarians will object but other people will think there’s a case for it,” said Boris Johnson: “When you look at the international side of things, international travel, there’s no question that that’s where a lot of countries will be going and they will be insisting on vaccine passports, in the way that people used to insist on evidence you’d been inoculated against yellow fever”

Other idea being reviewed is the notion of being able to show proof of a negative test before accessing busy venues, which seems entirely impractical at best and difficult to even imagine at worse, in terms of entrance to a large venue, like the O2.

The question remains, however, however the government moves on the idea of Covid vaccine “passports”, many businesses may decide to introduce their own system for staff and customers. Pimlico Plumbers were the first to put their heads above the parapet and stated that they would require all their staff to have the jab. 

Discrimination

The UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission has spoken out about the idea, quoting concerns about “unlawful discrimination”, but as David Allen Green, a lawyer and former legal correspondent for the New Statesman rightly comments, “all certification is discriminatory, that is its very point”. 

“The more important questions are whether that a policy of certificates would be reliable – and, if reliable, whether the benefits will outweigh the costs and whether it will not create unwanted inequalities, either directly or indirectly.”

Some countries already operate a vaccination certification scheme of sorts – the International Yellow Fever Vaccination Certificate is one. If you want to travel to countries including Argentina, Brazil, Kenya or Tanzania then you’ll need to prove you’ve had the vaccination. 

World Travel and Tourism Council Head, Gloria Guevara said in January “we should never require the vaccination to get a job or to travel”, and suggested that requiring a vaccination to travel “takes us to discrimination”.

The World Health Organisation also suggested that steps were required to ensure that any program was “ethical and fair”.

Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, told LBC that a scheme could be used in supermarkets and restaurants and said “It’s something that hasn’t been ruled out and it’s under consideration, but of course you’ve got to make it workable.

“Whether it’s at an international, domestic or local level, you’ve got to know that the document being presented is something that you can rely on and that it’s an accurate reflection of the status of the individual.”

What is concerning some, however, is the data security and privacy issues resulting from such a scheme. The Ada Lovelace institute suggested:

“There is a further indirect risk arising from the creation of a digital infrastructure of personal risk profiling that, once used, may be a core part of our social and global fabric: the pandemic is creating the conditions for an acceleration of individualised risk scoring. Any digital vaccination certificate that is linked to the identity of an individual, particularly if it operates at a supranational level, delivers significant power to the controllers of that infrastructure that will be hard to dissolve or dismantle post-crisis”

Melinda Mills, who is a professor and the Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford recently published a report outlining 12 important criteria that need to be satisfied before any vaccine passports see the light of day. She said “International standardisation is one of the criteria we believe essential, but we have already seen some countries introducing vaccine certificates related to travel or linked to quarantine or attending events. We need a broader discussion about multiple aspects of a vaccine passport, from the science of immunity through to data privacy, technical challenges and the ethics and legality of how it might be used.”

Amongst 6 other criteria, key things to consider were security, portability, affordability, legality, ethics and standardisation.

Prof Christopher Dye, who is the University of Oxford lead on Epidemiology and a fellow report lead said that the passports must meet these criteria to be feasible and was concerned about the limits of the current vaccination program. He said “Huge progress has been made in many of these areas but we are not there yet.  At the most basic level, we are still gathering data on exactly how effective each vaccine is in preventing infection and transmission and on how long the immunity will last.”

Last year the WHO were not confident in the idea of Covid passports, suggesting “there is not enough evidence about the effectiveness of antibody-mediated immunity to guarantee the accuracy of an ‘immunity passport’ or ‘risk-free certificate.’ People who assume that they are immune to a second infection because they have received a positive test result may ignore public health advice. The use of such certificates may therefore increase the risks of continued transmission.”

The Ada Lovelace Institute have a complete list of all countries’ stated position on vaccine passports

According to the BBC, Greece and Austria are urging other EU countries to help them encourage the restart of business by adopting vaccine passports. During a virtual conversation between various EU leaders, they put forward various ideas and proposals for such a scheme, urging their EU counterparts to take up the mantel and prepare their citizens for the realities of encouraging a return to every day life and reinvigorate EU business. 

Denmark and Sweden are also keen and Greece has already implemented a scheme – Greek Deputy Prime Minister told the BBC that he felt that the scheme was “not discriminatory at all” and said those who have been vaccinated could come and visit as tourists. Israelis will be able to visit Greece and Cyprus with their version of a Covid passport this summer. 

Sebastian Kurz, the Chancellor for Austria said that they would be instituting a scheme like Israel, tweeting “”That should allow you to prove, on your mobile phone, that you’ve been tested, inoculated or have recovered [from Covid]. Our goal: to avoid a lengthy lockdown and finally enable freedom to travel again in the EU, and freedom to enjoy events and cuisine.”

It’s clear, however that opinions on the introduction of a Covid vaccine passport split opinion in the UK and there is currently a petition on the UK petition website with approaching 250, 000 signatures urging the government not to roll out the passport. The number of signatories has triggered the government to consider a debate on the subject.

Rishi Sunak suggested to BBC television on Sunday 28 February that it could help boost the economy, saying “Obviously it is a complicated but potentially very relevant question for helping us reopen those parts of our country like mass events” which rather suggests it’s something the government will give serious consideration to. 

Once the entire population has been offered a vaccine, the situation may become clearer as we will have a better picture just how large a population remain unvaccinated – by choice or by medical necessity. Perhaps it’s only then we can know how important it might be and how close to true herd immunity we might be. 

Leave a Reply