Vaccine passports: What you need to know

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Phone, wallet, keys, mask… vaccine passport? It sounds strange, but could this be a new everyday item in 2021?

On December 2nd, the UK became the first western country to license a vaccination for Covid-19, meaning that mass immunisation (using the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine) will begin soon.

But we are still some way from life returning to ‘normal’.

So-called ‘vaccine passports’ or ‘immunity passports’ have been discussed by UK government officials as a way to prove someone has been vaccinated against Covid-19, and thus enabling them to take part in activities that are currently restricted.

They were discussed by Health Minister Nadhim Zahawi, who is overseeing the UK’s vaccine rollout, and who told the BBC that the government was “looking at the technology”.

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Zahawi continued: “And, of course, a way of people being able to inform their GP that they have been vaccinated.

“But, also, I think you’ll probably find that restaurants and bars and cinemas and other venues … will probably also use that system, as they have done with the [test and trace] app.”

How would a vaccine passport work?

That could differ country-by-country, or even regionally within the UK.

An article in medical journal The Lancet states that the ‘passports’ could take forms such as a wristband, smartphone application or certificate. They would be used to confirm that a person is at a low risk of acquiring or transmitting Covid-19, and could mean that during a lockdown, people with an immunity passport follow less strict restrictions on social distancing, travel and other activities. 

Will they be introduced?

On December 2nd, the Welsh government announced that people who have received a coronavirus vaccine in Wales will be given a card noting the date and type of the vaccination.

Health minister Vaughan Gething said it will be given a credit card-sized NHS Wales immunisation card which will have the vaccine name, date of immunisation and batch number of each of the doses given handwritten on them.

Gething said they would act as a reminder for a second dose and for the type of vaccine, and it will also give information about how to report side effects.”

It was not stated that these would function as a ‘passport’, allowing people to do activities that those without one cannot.

Asked about the possibility of vaccine passports being introduced in the UK, Cabinet Minister Michael Gove had said on November 30th: “let’s not get ahead of ourselves, that’s not the plan.”

“What we want to do is to make sure that we can get vaccines effectively rolled out.”

Gove added that businesses would nonetheless have the “capacity to make decisions about who they will admit and why”.

There are still issues with the concept of a vaccine passport. They have been criticised on ethical grounds, because of the potential restrictions on some people’s lives (which could disproportionately affect minorities or disadvantaged people). Some people object to them over privacy concerns. And there’s also an argument that not enough will be known for a long time about the possibility of transmitting Covid-19 after being vaccinated. 

Others claim that they could be the best way to get back to normal life while the threat of Covid-19 remains, and would stop people who are at low risk of catching or spreading the disease from having their activities restricted.

What about vaccine passports just for travel?

There’s also been talk of using digital ‘health passports’ to help reboot international travel.

One such system, called CommonPass, is backed by the World Economic Forum and would use a common international standard for passengers to demonstrate they do not have coronavirus.

Its proponents say it is comparable to existing health requirements, such as the yellow fever vaccination certificates that must be presented on arrival in some countries.

While this system is currently being trialled, the International Air Transport Association has also said it is testing an app that would allow travellers to show their Covid-19 ‘status’ easily.

So far, there’s no concrete information on which system might become widespread.

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