European leaders to debate EU-wide vaccine passports

As governments roll-out mass COVID-19 vaccination programmes, debate has grown on the issue of vaccine passports and status apps. 

Tomorrow (25 Feb) EU leaders will discuss the possibility of common national measures to allow travel between members states.

Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal are among the proponents of EU-wide vaccine passports, with Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis officially calling for their introduction. European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, stated in January that she supported the idea.

NATIONAL MEASURES

UK prime minister Boris Johnson this week announced a review of vaccine passports to be led by Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, which will examine whether businesses such as pubs and theatres could be prohibited from making access conditional on vaccination. The NHS app is expected to become a digital COVID-19 certificate allowing citizens to prove they have been vaccinated or tested negative.

Several countries have already moved to create measures. Iceland began rolling-out digital passports in January. Meanwhile, Denmark confirmed that a simple coronavirus passport for business travellers will be launched on its digital health portal, sundhed.dk by the end of February. Sweden is also due launch a vaccine passport by summer.

Spain is working on a vaccination passport for its citizens, to help the tourist sector recover and is compiling a database of vaccine refusers to share with the EU.

Tech trailblazer Estonia has worked with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to create an e-vaccination certificate known as a “smart yellow card, with a pilot scheme launched last month.

Hungary also announced it will issue a vaccine passport to citizens who have had the second dose of the vaccine, which may allow them to stay out after the country’s 8pm curfew.

Although Poland said it does not have plans for a vaccine passport, it is using a QR code app system which allows vaccinated citizens to skip quarantine when entering the country.

DISCRIMINATION CONCERNS

Some countries have expressed fears that vaccine passports could cause a two-tier system, which discriminates against those not able to have the jab, such as pregnant women and people with immune problems or allergic reactions.

It is possible the passports could be used not only for international travel, but to enable entry to theatres, the cinema, restaurants, and mass events, such as sport games or concerts.

France and Germany have voiced concerns that vaccine passports would mean privileged  treatment for certain classes of citizens. Germany’s ethics council recommended that no special conditions be granted to the inoculated and cited a lack of evidence over whether vaccinated people could still spread the virus.

There are also privacy concerns about the measures. In December, the University of Exeter in the UK published a report raising concerns about the impact of digital health passports on data privacy and human rights.

Independent research body, The Ada Lovelace Institute has conducted a review into practical and ethical issues around digital vaccine passports. An expert group, chaired by Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery, concluded the roll-out of digital passports is not currently justified, as vaccination status is not a robust basis for risk-based decision making.

THE LARGER CONTEXT

Tech companies have already begun to facilitate digital health passports. A coalition of health and tech groups have formed The Vaccination Credential Initiative, to create an internationally accepted digital health card, which will store information on COVID-19 such as negative tests or proof of vaccination.

British firm V-Health launched a passport for air travel last year and a UK prototype immunity passport developed by Mvine and iProov recently entered the live testing stage.

Swiss non-profit organisation, the Commons Project has developed app called the CommonPass app, which is designed to transmit COVID tests and vaccination status from certified labs and vaccination sites while preserving privacy.

ON THE RECORD

Prof Sir Montgomery, professor of health care law at University College London and chair of Oxford University Hospitals NHSFT, said: “Vaccine passport apps could potentially undermine other public health interventions and suggest a binary certainty (passport holders are safe; those without are risky) that does not adequately reflect a more nuanced and collective understanding of risk posed and faced during the pandemic.

“It may be counterproductive or harmful to encourage risk scoring at an individual level when risk is more contextual and collective – it will be national and international herd immunity that will offer ultimate protection. Passporting might foster a false sense of security in either the passported person or others and increase rather than decrease risky behaviours.”

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