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COVID-19 vaccine passports: What you need to know

by Umberto Bacchi | @UmbertoBacchi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 26 July 2021 11:30 GMT

A protester holds a placard that reads "No to the health passport" during a demonstration called by the French nationalist party "Les Patriotes" (The Patriots) against France's restrictions to fight the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, on the "Droits de l'Homme" (human rights) esplanade at the Trocadero Square in Paris, France, July 24, 2021. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

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Digital tools to certify COVID-19 immunity could help revive key business sectors and lift travel curbs, but they raise equality, health and privacy concerns

By Umberto Bacchi

July 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - France will close the doors of its bistros, cafes and cinemas to those who don’t have a COVID-19 passport this summer as it enacts some of the strongest vaccine rules in Europe in the face of rising infections. 

The ‘health pass’ showing proof of immunity or a recent negative COVID-19 test is already required for venues including museums, cinemas and swimming pools, and will be further expanded from August to cover restaurants and bars as well as long-distance train and plane journeys.

It’s the latest in a growing network of vaccine passport schemes aiming to ease travel and business for those who can prove they have been protected – and in some cases bar those who have not got the jab.

The scheme has prompted anger in France from some who say it breaches their rights to freedom and liberty. 

As more technology firms develop digital certificates that can be accessed on smartphones by employers, airlines and others, here is all you need to know about health passports and certificates.

As vaccination campaigns progress across the continent, governments have been exploring how documents, mostly digital, could help reopen borders by identifying people who are protected against the coronavirus.

The EU's Digital Covid Certificate, which is free of charge and can be on a smartphone or printed out, indicates if a traveller has been fully vaccinated, has received a negative COVID-19 test or has immunity after recovering from the disease.

The system, which also extends to Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, allows free travel for people who have been fully vaccinated for 14 days.

Other travellers might face restrictions depending on the situation in their country of origin, with a negative test and quarantine possibly required under a coding system.

As more technology firms develop digital certificates that can be accessed on smartphones by employers, airlines and others, here is all you need to know about health passports and certificates.

WHAT ARE HEALTH PASSPORTS?

The term health passport, or health pass, generally refers to documents - in paper or digital format - that certify a person is unlikely to either catch or spread a disease.

With the coronavirus, the proposed certificates would attest one of three things: that the holder has been vaccinated, has tested negative for the virus or has recovered from it.

Their use could allow governments to lift some pandemic-induced restrictions, allowing people to travel in planes, attend concerts, go to work or dine out, supporters say.

WHERE ARE THEY ALREADY BEING USED?

Different health passes have been trialed by countries around the world, from Bahrain to the Baltic, where Estonia and Lithuania were among the first nations to start using the "EU Digital COVID Certificate".

China introduced an app-based system that uses travel and medical data to give people a rating indicating the likelihood of them having the virus, while in India everyone who gets the jab will get a QR code-based electronic certificate, the government said.

In Israel, anyone vaccinated or having recovered from COVID-19 with presumed immunity is issued with health ministry "Green Pass" certificates that grant access to various leisure venues, and Denmark has launched a similar "corona-passport".

The Nordic country has also already joined the EU certificate scheme 

Presentation of the new digital COVID-19 vaccination passport COVPASS in Potsdam, Germany, May 27, 2021. Soeren Stache/Pool via REUTERS (image partially blurred at source)

WHO ELSE IS USING DIGITAL PASSES?

Global airline body IATA said this month that a digital travel pass for COVID-19 test results and vaccine certifications would go live in the coming weeks following a testing phase.

The mobile application, which has been tested by some airlines, was originally designed to facilitate passenger screening at the airport check-in and aircraft boarding stages.

However, IATA says it has since modified the app for when passengers are also checked by immigration officers on arrival.

On a smaller scale, the University of Illinois has made access to campus buildings dependent on negative tests.

Earlier this year, big tech companies including Microsoft Corp, Oracle Corp and healthcare companies Cigna Corp and Mayo Clinic in January become part of a coalition pushing for digital records of people who get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The project, called Vaccination Credential Initiative, aims to help people get encrypted digital copies of their immunisation records stored in a digital wallet of their choice.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN CONCERNS?

So-called immunity passports, which allow greater freedom to those who have recovered from COVID-19, could encourage some people to try to catch the virus, health experts have warned.

Vaccination certificates are already regulated by international law, which allows countries to require from travellers proof of vaccination for diseases such as yellow fever or polio as a condition of entry.

But extending the system to COVID-19 could face hurdles, with governments having to agree on which of the vaccines they accept, Alexandra Phelan, an infectious disease expert at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., said earlier this year.

Linking travel to a vaccination could also leave a large part of the world grounded as developing countries struggle to access sufficient vaccine supplies for their populations, Phelan said at the time.

WHY DIGITAL AND NOT PAPER?

Certificates could in theory be paper-based or digital, but trials have largely focused on digital solutions.

Inequitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine could incentivise people to falsify papers, and paper documents are inherently easier to forge, experts say.

But apps and other digital solutions combining health data and identification could exclude large numbers of people who do not own a smartphone, while also raising privacy concerns, Tom Fisher, a researcher at non-profit Privacy International said earlier this year.

This article was updated on Thursday, 1 July 2021, to include information about the EU's vaccine passport, and on Monday 26 July 2021 to include recent developments regarding vaccine passports in France. 

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(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Jumana Farouky, Tom Finn and Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)