This article also appeared in the Opinion section of The Australian Financial Review on 19 April 2021.
The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines around the world presents new hope for the easing of restrictions on travel and social interaction. However, the debate about the need to record vaccinations creates some difficult decisions around so called vaccine passports.
What can and can’t an individual do based on their vaccinated status? How will people be able to be treated differently based on their vaccinated status? And will the type of vaccine have any bearing on these passports?
We may be on a path where health information is going to be laid open to the local fast food outlet. Who will have access to what data? How the passports operate, and the technology that underpins them, will be crucial for protecting our sensitive health information.
Discrimination is the key
The fundamental premise of a passport is to discriminate between people based on their vaccinated status. That is to allow persons with the requisite status to engage in certain activities, and preclude those who don’t have that status to engage in those activities.
What about people who for one reason or another can’t, won’t or shouldn’t be vaccinated?
Those who can’t might include pregnant women (as might those who simply don’t have access to the vaccine); those who won’t might include conscientious objectors (for whom there may well be little sympathy); and those who shouldn’t may include those who have some pre-existing condition presenting special risks to them.
So what are some of the discriminatory measures we are likely to see, and will they give consideration to these different categories?
International travel seems to be an early candidate, as do certain entertainment events attracting large crowds.
But why stop there? Given experiences to date, entry to aged care homes and hospitals (for visitors) jump out as two obvious candidates. But would that be seriously contemplated?
As we have watched the travels of infected persons spread the virus, hardware stores, liquor outlets and fast food stores suggest themselves as places where a passport might be a desirable requirement.
This is also going to be played out in the workplace, where the counter-balancing duties of employers are apt to tilt the scales even further towards requiring a passport for entry.
What should a passport include?
A passport cannot realistically merely provide proof of vaccination; as a minimum it also requires the date of vaccination (for both doses for those two-dose vaccines) to provide a basis for determining the passport’s currency. Other information might also be useful, like the timing of any virus positive or negative test results, and the presence of any virus antibodies.
Trials of passports already underway
A number of airlines are already using vaccine passports with Qantas, Qatar, Air New Zealand, Emirates and Etihad all running trials on recent international flights.
Israel has introduced ‘green passports’ to ensure that only inoculated individuals are able to attend public arenas (such as concerts, gyms, theatres and sporting events). China has also recently launched its own digital vaccination certificate for individuals planning to travel internationally.
Australia, Singapore, the EU and the UK are all considering digital or physical vaccine passports to accompany their respective vaccine rollouts. The UK proposals include using the certificate as a means of eliminating social distancing requirements, allowing establishments to re-open, and incentivising more people to get vaccinated or tested.
In the US with vaccination levels rising, debate is heating up around the rights and wrongs of passports, with overtones of political divisions. The Biden Government has just announced that they have no plans to instigate vaccine passports. What will this mean down the track for our border controls and the verification of vaccination status for US travellers?
What is planned for Australia?
In Australia, the Federal Government has announced that vaccine recipients would have their details recorded on the Australian Immunisation Register and that each individual’s status would be accessible via government web portals.
How safe is my data?
The development of vaccine passports or certificates will create a significant new store of data of potentially sensitive personal information which by definition is intended to be widely used in the community.
The protection of, as well as the use and disclosure of, the information is likely to be governed by a wide variety of different administrative approaches according to each jurisdiction’s laws, as well as industry-specific approaches in the travel sector, healthcare and aged care, and the private sector generally. For example, there is already a proliferation of a wide variety of country-specific and airline-specific travel requirements.
It is in the best interests of governments and technology providers to keep this data safe from hackers. Given our personal data is shared daily through a myriad of ways, the benefits of opting in to vaccination (and the associated passports) would outweigh the inherent risks of sharing any personal data online.
The verdict on vaccination passports
For the majority of people, the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks. As a community, if we want to get back to some form of normalcy, vaccination is a pathway to get there.
The real question is whether this necessitates the tracking of vaccinations, making the passport necessary. If we want to travel, we accept we need a valid passport, get our photo taken and hand over the documents. The vaccine passport will be much the same, but instead of posing for a photo, we’ll roll up our sleeve.
However, if existing vaccines aren’t effective against new strains, until new boosters are developed, what value will our passports have?