COVID-19 Vaccine Passports –The Next Big Thing

With COVID-19 vaccines being rolled out globally, there has been intense discussion on what happens next. Travelling (be it for business or leisure) is viewed as a big step in getting back to a state of normalcy and having a vaccine certification would certainly help in conversations around resuming international flights.

A vaccine certification is essentially a health passport, health pass or a general document in either paper or digital format that certifies that a specific traveler is unlikely to either catch or spread a disease. In the case of COVID-19, the proposed certificates would show that the traveler has been vaccinated, has tested negative or has recovered.

Their use could allow governments to lift some pandemic-induced restrictions, allowing people to travel in planes, socialize, go to work or dine out which would help boost the economy.

Over the past few months, various types of health passes have been trialled by governments and firms around the world.

China has implemented an app-based health code system that uses travel and medical data to allocate people a red, yellow or green rating indicating the chances of them having the virus – and whether or not they can move about freely.

Israel will issue a “green passport” to those who have been vaccinated, which will allow them to go to restaurants and cultural events, and exempt them from quarantine rules or getting a virus test before travel.

In April, Chile said it would distribute certificates to people who recovered from the virus.

And in India, everyone who has been vaccinated will receive a QR code-based electronic certificate, according to the national health ministry.

Airlines have also been doing their part. The International Air Transport Association, the lobby group of the world’s airlines, announced plans to launch a digital health travel pass in 2021 that will include passengers’ Covid-19 vaccination data.

Last month, British Airways said it would trial a mobile health app that combines travel verification documents and Covid-19 test results to ensure passengers meet destination entry requirements. A similar app is already in use by American Airlines.

Using these digital tools to certify that a traveler is immune could certainly help in easing lockdowns but raise issues of privacy and equality.

Potential pitfalls include equality issues where linking travel to a vaccination could also leave a large part of the world grounded as only travelers from the wealthier nations would be travelling. Another issue would be the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 as it is unclear whether people whom recover from Covid-19 are protected from a second infection – or, if they are, for how long. This would call into question the validity of these vaccination certificates.

Finally, with the apps or certificates likely to be digital, it creates a tricky situation of possible data exploitation, with the valuable data from these solutions being used for other purposes. Also, large numbers of people who do not own a smartphone would not have access to these certificates.

With all these issues to consider, authorities have to consider carefully if and how travel in a post-COVID-19 future should be managed and what must be done to get there.

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