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COVID-19: What is the Latest on COVID Vaccination Passport Scheme?

Anyone who has kept a keen eye on the news in recent weeks will know that there has been enormous speculation about the likelihood of a COVID passport scheme, both for domestic and international use. The government appears to have swung between distancing itself from such a scheme to showing real interest. In this article, we will look at the latest information available on whether a COVID-19 vaccination passport scheme is likely to happen and the form it may take.

What Is The Idea Behind A COVID-19 Vaccination Passport?

The concept of a COVID-19 vaccination passport is nothing new. Since COVID-19 vaccines started to be formally approved in Autumn 2020, experts and politicians have tussled with the notion of everyone in the population having a way of proving they have been vaccinated and hence permitted entry to venues or allowed to travel. It may also be used to show the results of COVID-19 tests and whether the person has immunity.

According to the Institute for Government, most of the models proposed by organisations such as the World Economic Forum and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) are based around the use of mobile phone app technology. One idea is to have an app which the user needs to log in using a highly secure method (e.g. fingerprints or facial recognition), which would then pull data down from their centralised NHS patient record.

When will the UK have a COVID-19 vaccination passport?

In a recent interview, Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, appeared to confirm that the government are indeed going down the line of using the NHS app for vaccine passports. This is not, however, according to Mr Shapps, something that is ready now. Rather it is hoped to be ready once travel restrictions are (expected to be) eased on 17th May 2021. Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi told the BBC, “NHSx [the NHS’s digital division]...are working on making that operationally possible for 17th May”.

At this stage, it is still not entirely clear if the NHS app will be used, despite what Mr Shapps said. The Department of Health and Social Care has recently said that the app was “being considered as part of the digital route”. It should also be stressed that the NHS app is not the same as the COVID-19 app used to check in to premises and identify if people have been exposed to the virus (i.e. contact tracing). The NHS app is used for booking appointments, ordering prescriptions, and messaging GP’s.

The reason that this is not clear as yet is that more work is needed to find a solution that is fit for purpose and is robust and secure. Data security and privacy are huge considerations. Having an app that exposes patient data and can easily be hacked or misused would render the very idea of such as scheme pointless. As the BBC’s Technology Correspondent, Rory Cellan-Jones, explains, “While the app can record your vaccinations, that isn’t automatic - I’ve searched in vain to find the record of my Covid jab, only to get a message saying I need to ask my GP for access to my detailed health record. If the NHS app does become a vaccine passport, millions of people will be bombarding GPs with similar requests”. He also explains that there are additional hurdles in relation to including recent COVID-19 test data into the app and having a solution that will be accepted internationally. Cellan-Jones explains that one insider told him, “If people think they’ll just be able to flash the existing app with their vaccine record at passport control, that isn’t going to happen”.

For all of these reasons and more, we will need to wait until May for details on how the actual passport scheme will work. Given the government’s history of slipping and overrunning IT projects, it may not be out of the realms of possibility that it doesn’t happen in time or is reduced in functionality to meet the deadline.

What are other countries doing?

Many countries and organisations around the world are developing and trialling different technologies to achieve the aim of a vaccine passport. There is an EU digital green certificate that is intended to allow EU citizens to travel around the region “without discrimination”. It is expected to work in the EEA also. In addition, IATA is trialling its own solution, referred to as the IATA Travel Pass. In the meantime, the US White House has ruled out the idea of a mandated vaccination passport, giving preference to the privacy and rights of citizens. White House press secretary Jen Psaki has stated that there would be no “federal vaccinations database” or a “federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential”. She went on to confirm, “The government is not now, nor will be, supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential,” she said. “Our interest is very simple from the federal government, which is Americans’ privacy and rights should be protected, and so that these systems are not used against people unfairly”.

Will I Be Able To Go On Holiday Abroad In 2021?

There is an increasing amount of speculation that several countries will open to UK citizens this year. Spain has confirmed it wants to open its borders to holidaymakers from the UK. Portugal has stated the same intention and plans to open in mid-May. Other countries which may be open to British travellers include Greece, Israel, Malta, Gibraltar, Barbados, Maldives, and even the USA. There are also suggestions that France will be open to travellers from the UK from 9th June for those with a negative test.

Final words

The light is very much visible at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel now. While we don’t know exactly how any potential vaccine passport will work and which countries we can travel to this summer, there is a great deal of pressure to sort all of this out in the next few weeks. We will keep you up to date with the details of the government’s final plan for vaccine passports and the countries we will be able to holiday in as soon as the information is available.

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