Europe wants coronavirus ‘vaccine certificates’ as soon as possible. But how will they work and which countries would sign up?
The European Union is pushing to introduce ‘vaccine certificates’ as soon as possible, allowing its citizens to freely travel within the 27-nation bloc again.
Last week EU Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas said the certificates, also referred to as immunity passports, could “open the door to other uses to help lift restrictions”.
Vaccinations have already started rolling out across the EU, with each member differing in their inoculation rates.
But while the idea of vaccine certificates has been proposed by tourism-dependent countries like Greece and Portugal, it has come under fire from privacy advocates.
Public health experts have also raised concerns, because vaccinated people may still spread the virus.
Here’s what we know about the proposal.
How would it work?
In theory, a vaccination certificate would allow people who have been vaccinated to travel and begin doing normal activities again — such as going to the cinema, pub or sporting events.
“People who have been vaccinated potentially could go and do things collectively, like getting on an airplane, or maybe going into going into a high-risk area, like a care home,” Andrew Bud, chief executive of biometrics authentication provider iProov, told the ABC.
“So potentially, it would create new powers back to normal life for those who are vaccinated.”
The idea is that a traveller’s vaccination data would be recorded in some way — potentially in an app on their phone — which could then be presented to authorities on departure as proof that they have been vaccinated.
It would also record which vaccine a person has had.
“The idea is that you create the certificate, which is just a notarised fact that you’ve been vaccinated,” Mr Bud said.
One particular app being developed scans a traveller’s facial features and creates a biometric signature that can then be linked — in the cloud — to their vaccination status.
In the United Kingdom, a trial has begun using iProov’s technology within the National Health Service.
Which countries would sign up?
Tourist destinations like Greece, Portugal and Cyprus are behind the push, while France, which has experienced higher levels of vaccine scepticism among its population, has already rejected the idea.
In December, Cyprus became the first European nation to announce that it would abolish quarantine rules for travellers, if they were vaccinated, by March.
In Poland, citizens who receive a second jab will soon be given a vaccine passport in the form of a QR code and Denmark is also moving ahead with a similar system that will enable travel.
Greece is also issuing digital vaccination certificates to each person vaccinated against COVID-19. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has written to the European Commission urging a uniformed approach.
Under its proposal, having a COVID-19 vaccine would not be a prerequisite for travel but would eliminate the need for testing on arrival or lengthy quarantine.
But developing a system that works across the continent — not to mention the world — will be difficult.
“I think this is going to be extremely complicated,” Mr Bud said.
“Ideally, you would want one international standard for the issuance, verification and transportability in recognition of a single certificate worldwide.”
Mr Bud said the concept of a health certification for travelling was not new, pointing out travellers still needed yellow fever certificates in some countries, but that digitalisation made things more complicated.
“I think that’s going to be a very, very tough goal to reach,” he said.
“And I think less elegant solutions may very well happen.”
Could a ‘vaccine certificate’ allow people to travel freely?
Experts have suggested there are a few risks to consider around using a vaccine certificate to open up travel again.
Firstly, it was not yet clear how long a vaccine against COVID-19 would last, and even whether once someone had been vaccinated they could still carry and spread the virus.
“Vaccine trials were run relatively recently,” Dr Al Edwards, an Associate Professor in Biomedical Technology from the Reading School of Pharmacy, told the ABC.
“We don’t have five years’ data, we just don’t know how long we get protection.
“It’s risky, because we don’t have enough information.”
For now, he said a vaccine passport was a bridge too far, as vaccines could only guarantee less chance of having a severe reaction to a disease.
Dr Edwards said in countries like Australia, where community transmission was low, a vaccination and a passport might not be enough to satisfy authorities.
“So particularly when you have a situation where you have a virus that’s very common in one country and not common at all or completely absent in another country, what you’re trying to do with your vaccine is prevent the virus coming in,” Dr Edwards said.
“At the moment, we don’t know whether the vaccine stops you from passing the infection on.”
Would people have to sign up?
Kevin Trilli, chief product officer of Onfido, another provider of the technology, said people might need a method of proving their COVID-19 vaccination status for many years to come.
“There is a cycle on this that needs to be continued going forward,” he said.
Mr Trilli said the digital immunity passport systems being developed could be used to help combat future pandemics, if and when they occurred.
“We cannot be caught on the back foot as a society,” he said.
“So we’re almost building this system for the next one.”
Mr Trilli conceded some people might have concerns about showing an immunity passport before entering a public place.
However, he said similar checks were already widely tolerated by society.
“If you walk into a pub, are you old enough to drink?” he said.
“If we can make it similar to that flash little ID check that we do for our age, which is a basic permission attribute, this just becomes another permission attribute.”
Qantas has already said passengers may need vaccinations to travel in the future, and British Airways has announced it will be trialling a health passport app from February 4 on all of its transatlantic routes between London and the US.
Mr Trilli said while digital immunity passports may not become compulsory, people might be willing to adopt the technology if it made their lives simpler.
“You can also see this convenience … if you have your digital pass, you can go through the fast lane,” he said.
“If you don’t, you’ve got to go do the screening and all those other aspects, and it’s just going to take time and inconvenience, plus you might not even have access.”
What are some of the concerns around this?
Privacy advocates fear that this type of data collection could seep into other parts of people’s lives.
Alexandrine Pirlot de Corbion, director of strategy at Privacy International, said it was unlikely the idea would be confined to travel.
“It’s actually going to infiltrate areas of our lives where we’ve never had to show identification: to go to work or to go in a public space, for example, in a park,” Ms Pirlot de Corbion told the ABC.
She said even data collected for public health reasons could potentially be used for alternative reasons, like law enforcement, down the track.
“It is one of the hardest things to regulate because once the data is available, the database is created, the temptation is there to say, oh, but it exists, why don’t we use it for this purpose?” Ms Pirlot de Corbion said.
Requiring people to show a digital immunity passport would be unfair to residents from poorer countries with limited access to vaccines and technology, she said.
“By default, you’ll have those that have credentials and those who don’t,” she said.
“We know how unequal the access to vaccination will be and still is.
“In the case of airlines if it’s mandatory then it’s really limiting people’s freedom of movement.”
Even some developers of vaccine passport technology concede there are complex ethical issues to address.
“There are real public issues associated with the creation of two-tier societies,” Andrew Bud said.
“At the same time, it seems absurd to prevent people who could do something safely from doing that safely, because other people can’t do it safely.
“One of the great virtues of a vaccination certificate is that it gives people the ability to be more free, then that creates a tremendous incentive for people to go and get vaccinated.
“It’s both an individual benefit and a collective benefit.”