With the vaccine rollout in the UK continuing apace – as of the 12th of March, over 23 million first doses and almost 1.5 million second doses had been delivered – and as thoughts return to restarting daily life as we once knew it, a debate over ‘vaccine passports’ has begun to rage.
The concept of a vaccine passport is fairly simple. Those who have had the jab would receive an official passport or certificate, providing proof of inoculation. Advocates of the scheme, such as ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, argue that passports would give the public confidence to go about their daily lives again once restrictions have been lifted and provide a boost to the economy.
Practical and ethical concerns
However, the idea is fraught with difficulties. For one, there are the practicalities. Issuing vaccinated citizens with a proof-of-inoculation passport would be a huge administrative task, and there are expenses to consider as the UK economy reels from the havoc wrought by a series of lockdowns over the past year. Would holders be entitled to a passport after one dose, or would they only be issued after the second dose? Those who have received a jab are provided with vaccination cards. Could these be used as official proof of vaccination, negating the need to issue official passports?
Then there are civil rights issues to consider. One can only imagine the furore that would ensue if the UK government announced that entry into entertainment and hospitality venues will hinge on possession of a vaccine passport. Once the entire adult population of the UK has been offered a vaccine, would workplaces and places of worship operate passport-only policies? In such a scenario discrimination would be the watchword, and the government could face a string of lawsuits.
The picture is rather different when it comes to international travel, and it is here that a stronger case can be made for vaccination passports. A number of EU countries, including France, Germany, and Spain, have indicated that they are exploring passport schemes. Cyprus has said that it will welcome UK holidaymakers who have been inoculated, while other countries, such as Portugal, will open their borders to travellers who have either proof of vaccination or have returned a negative test. The European Commission has also announced plans for a ‘digital green pass’, a hybrid form of a vaccine passport that would provide proof of vaccination, or recent test results for those yet to receive a jab, with the aim of reviving international travel.
UK government ministers have been cagey – and contradictory – on the issue. Back in November, Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi indicated that the government was exploring the idea of immunity passports in one form or another, possibly via a phone app. In early February he was unequivocal in ruling out vaccine passports as an option for travel abroad. He said that such a policy would be “discriminatory”, pointing out that if travellers are required to show proof of vaccination at borders, they could obtain evidence from their GP. Just days later, however, he appeared to row back on this, noting that the government was considering a ‘certificate’ for overseas travellers.
A political minefield
Towards the end of February, Boris Johnson announced that the government has launched a review into vaccine passports, as well as testing certificates, that will be headed by Michael Gove. Although Johnson indicated that they would not be introduced at a granular level for domestic use within the UK, to the extent that proof of vaccination would be required to gain entry to a pub or theatre, the review indicates that ministers are leaving most options on the table.
Moral and ethical concerns, alongside practical issues, will be weighed against the economic benefits that passports or certificates could bring as the government aims to provide succour to under-siege industries such as hospitality. A twelve-point criteria for vaccine passports issued by The Royal Society highlights just how complicated the issue is, with cost, privacy concerns, international cooperation, technology, immunity rates and ethical considerations all coming into play.
The issue is, to put it mildly, something of a minefield. It is expected that the review will be completed by 21 June, coinciding with the earliest date that has been earmarked for a lifting of all final restrictions in England. One suspects that the government will end up ruling out the use of domestic passports or certificates for everyday use, although exceptions could be made for certain ‘mass gatherings, such as sports matches or festivals.
Vaccine passports for overseas travel are more likely to be adopted. The majority of countries, including the UK, currently require travellers to provide proof of a negative test result before entry, as governments attempt to limit imported cases and counter the threat of more transmissible ‘problem variants’ of the disease. As vaccine passport proponent Tony Blair points out, an international consensus will need to be achieved in order to avoid a patchwork of conflicting verification systems. The challenge will be whether the international community can deliver such a framework to revive travel in a COVID-secure fashion, without compromising hard-won infection rate gains.