The need to get a Covid vaccine certificate before you travel across Europe this summer is closer to becoming reality.
EU leaders are discussing the introduction of a “Digital Green Certificate” in time for Europe’s summer, but some countries, inside and outside the EU, have already announced plans for so-called “vaccine passports”.
How will the EU vaccine passport work?
The aim of the EU pass is to get travel moving across borders by Europe’s summer, “without discrimination”, but getting it all organised in a short space of time will be a significant challenge.
The certificate, either digital or on paper, will enable anyone vaccinated against Covid, or who has tested negative, or recently recovered from the virus, to travel across all 27 member states. The EU also wants to include non-EU countries including Norway, Iceland and Switzerland.
Key to the digital certificate is a QR code – a machine-readable graphic code made up of black and white squares – that contains personal data and the EU’s Commission says it will be safe and secure. It is working with the World Health Organization to ensure the certificate is recognised beyond Europe.
How will Denmark’s vaccine passport work?
Denmark plans to use its “Coronapas” vaccine passport domestically from Easter – but it could also be used later as a tool for international travel.
Like a number of European countries, Denmark already has a secure digital ID system called NemID, and the Coronapas will be linked to that. NemID gives Danes access to various online platforms, including a digital listing of an individual’s health records and test results.
The pass will play a key role in easing Danish Covid restrictions – most of which are expected to end by 21 May, once all the high-risk groups and over 50s are fully vaccinated.
Danes will have to show proof of vaccination, proof of earlier infection or a recent negative test to access services such as hairdressers, restaurants and cinemas.
Sweden has been considering similar plans.
Israel already has a vaccine passport system – how does that work?
Israel has the highest vaccination rate in the world. More than half the population have already received two vaccine doses. Last month it was able to begin easing a nationwide lockdown.
A “Green Pass” is available to anyone who has been fully vaccinated or has recovered from Covid-19. They have to show it to access facilities such as hotels, gyms or theatres.
It is available as a paper certificate or in an app, which links users to their personal health ministry data.
The app is opening up opportunities for international travel. Israel has struck deals with Greece and Cyprus so Israeli citizens with passes can travel to those two countries.
However, several issues have been reported with the system since it was rolled out.
Foreign nationals cannot get hold of the pass, nor can vaccinated citizens who are not insured with an Israeli healthcare provider. Experts have expressed privacy concerns over the smartphone app, and the government has admitted the police do not have the staff to check if businesses are complying with the new rules.
What are the challenges?
Within weeks of the WHO confirming that the coronavirus was a global pandemic, dozens of companies were rushing to announce plans to offer digital health certificates or, later, vaccine passports. But many seemed ignorant of the huge regulatory, ethical and technical challenges involved.
For any such certificate or passport to work, it is going to need two things – access to a country’s official records of vaccinations and a secure method of identifying an individual and linking them to their health record. And if such a digital certificate is to be accepted by the border force of another country, it will probably have to adhere to common standards set by organisations such as the WHO or the EU.
There are also all sorts of privacy and human rights issues – how confident will users be that their extremely sensitive health data will be stored securely and not put to other uses by an app developer or their government? And will the very existence of vaccine passports mean those who choose not to have one will have their freedom curtailed?
This may be a particularly hard sell in the UK where, unlike in many countries, there’s long been opposition to the idea of carrying a national identity card.
How will Estonia’s QR code passes work?
Estonia, one of the world’s most advanced digital societies, is planning to start issuing digital certificates in the form of a QR code, showing proof of vaccination by the end of April.
Individuals will be able to download their own unique code to prove they have been vaccinated and showing how many doses they have received. They can either print it off or store it on a smartphone.
“Launching our national solution early gives us the possibility to address potential obstacles in the use of the certificate,” said Kalle Killar from Estonia’s social affairs ministry. Having the system in place also meant Estonia was ready to join the EU’s certificate from day one, he added.
Is the UK planning to introduce vaccine passports?
Although foreign holidays are not currently allowed, the role vaccine passports could play in travel is being discussed.
“If another country says you can’t come in unless you have the jab, then we want Brits to be able to demonstrate that,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said.
Domestically, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has told MPs that people visiting pubs and other venues could be asked to provide a vaccine certificate before entering.
He told MPs he was “thinking very deeply” about the matter, and said that it “may be down to individual publicans”.
A government source has told the BBC the option of allowing people to show a negative test is also being looked at.