With the news that the UK government said that businesses are free to pursue vaccination ID tech, how likely are vaccine passports?
The phrase ‘vaccine passports’ refers to people (who have been vaccinated) being able to show proof of vaccination in the form of digital vaccination credentials/a digital ID, perhaps on an app, enabling them to gain access to services and venues (for cinemas, events, and concerts), for international air travel, or even to get jobs. The implication is that those without a vaccine passport will not have access to these things.
What Would It Take?
Vaccine passports would require the development of an app-based ID system that is reliable, accurate, secure, and is recognised by most businesses, organisations, and government agencies nationally and internationally (for travel overseas).
Scientists From The Royal Society appear to believe that vaccine passports are feasible and whilst not advocating the idea, they suggest that it is likely that they will be introduced and that international standardisation of the criteria for issuing vaccine passports will be required. With this in mind, the Royal Society has outlined 12 criteria that vaccine passports could meet to be workable, which are:
- Meet benchmarks for Covid-19 immunity.
- Accommodate differences between vaccines in their efficacy and changes in vaccine efficacy against emerging variants.
- Be internationally standardised.
- Have verifiable credentials (it is possible to prove that someone has been vaccinated).
- Have defined uses.
- Be based on a platform of interoperable technologies such as different operating systems (Android or Apple) and different devices (phones, tablets and offline).
- Be secure for personal data.
- Be portable.
- Be affordable to individuals and governments.
- Meet legal standards.
- Meet ethical standards.
- Have conditions of use that are understood and accepted by the passport holders.
Some companies and countries are reported to be at least testing ideas for vaccine passports. For example, Estonia, working with the World Health Organization (and others) is reported to be testing a vaccination certificate for use at its borders and Israel is reported to be developing a green passport and a purple badge, on a smartphone, linked to ID, to allow access for vaccinated people to places such as gyms, centres of worship, hotels, and more. Israel, however, has a relatively small population, a good supply of vaccine, and a centralised health care system which could make a system like a vaccine passport seem more viable.
Companies such as Salesforce and Emirates Airlines are also reported to be working on apps that could be used as vaccine passports for international travel.
No Jab, No Job
Some businesses in the UK have also been looking at ‘no jab, no job’ contracts for workers, which would most likely involve a vaccine passport. For example, Barchester Healthcare (200 care homes in the UK) and Pimlico Plumbers have been featured in news reports as looking to implement a policy whereby all new recruits would need to have COVID-19 vaccination as a condition of getting employment with those companies.
Although the UK’s Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Minister for COVID Vaccine Deployment), Nadhim Zahawi, appears to have offered businesses the freedom to pursue potential vaccination ID tech ideas, he has also made it clear that the UK government’s stance is that rapid flow tests would be a better method for ensuring people can enter venues safely. Rapid (lateral) flow tests detect active infections and although they may be cheap and relatively fast (20 minutes), and good generally for detecting people at the most infectious point, there are still questions about their overall accuracy.
Some have criticised Zahawi’s suggestion that lateral flow tests would be a good option for venue access, saying that it would simply not be practical given the number of tests required, the amount of time people would be required to wait around, and the impact on prices and more. For example, The UK Cinema Association said asking all customers to have a rapid test and then to wait 30 minutes for a result would be “impractical” and that it could lead to a “50% uplift on their cinema ticket”.
The government is hoping that the combination of the national vaccine programme as well as testing will be a way back to a kind of normal. Some are also predicting that private companies will use a proprietary solution and open protocols (e.g. blockchain) to create a hybrid solution which they will then go to the government to endorse.
Challenges – Technology, Privacy, Security, Ethics, and Discrimination
The idea of a (digital, smartphone-based) vaccine passport has many challenges including:
- The mobile technology needed may be beyond the capabilities of the UK government.
- Discrimination against those who, for whatever reason (the young, pregnant or can’t have the jab for medical reasons), have not received (or chosen not to receive) the vaccine.
- Ethical questions about forcing people to feel that they must be vaccinated and favouring those (jobs, services, and travel) who have had the vaccine.
- Scientific questions about how long immunity lasts and whether vaccines will actually protect against new variants, whether vaccination will help with any kind of ‘herd immunity’, plus how often boosters/new vaccines will be needed in the coming years.
- Questions about the legal standards required to operate this system.
- Questions about data protection and data security for digital ID and sensitive information (vaccination records and personal details).
- Questions about human rights and equality.
- A potential backlash from groups who do not want to be vaccinated.
What Does This Mean For Your Business?
At this point in time, national vaccination programmes are still underway. Although initial research results have been very positive (showing that vaccination appears to be significantly reducing hospitalisation and severe symptoms among older age groups) it is still not completely clear how vaccination will affect the transmission of COVID-19 on a large scale and this in itself is a challenge for a vaccine passport idea. The UK government is currently pinning its hopes on vaccines, treatments and testing, including lateral-flow tests for rapid testing in communities and workplaces as a way forward, although suggesting to businesses that they can explore solutions may mean that other options may be considered going forward.
There is global inequality in vaccination programmes and the availability of technology (e.g. smartphones for apps) and creating international standards for passports would clearly have practical challenges in addition to all the other challenges (security, ethics, equality and more). The nature of the disease, its spread, scale, and impact are things that have not been experienced in living memory. Although there are annual, optional flu vaccinations in the UK with the record of vaccinations being held at individual surgeries, the scale and complications vaccination for COVID-19 (and where we are at globally with technology) will undoubtedly involve the need for new solutions towards record-keeping of vaccinations for a population in the developed world who are used to using smartphone apps for many forms of verification, accessing services, buying tickets and more. It is not inconceivable then, that a kind of smartphone-based ID system that’s fast and convenient could be something that businesses in hard-hit sectors (entertainment, travel and hospitality) are hoping for and would consider to help them recover and move forward.
UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has recently been reported as saying that there will be a review into the use of vaccine passports, probably led by Michael Gove and that it is possible to consider the vaccine passport issue at the same time as the rollout as vaccinations. However, the Prime Minister also acknowledged that there are some complex issues around the idea. The announcement this week that all British adults are to be offered a first dose of the coronavirus vaccine by July 31 could form the basis of a vaccine passport programme in the near future. With schools due to go back within weeks and with more than 100 days still to go before most restrictions are lifted, however, it’s still a case of ‘wait and see’.
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