Covid-19: Are Digital Health Passports A Good Idea?

Covid-19: Are Digital Health Passports A Good Idea?

Digital tools to certify immunity from COVID-19 could help ease lockdowns, but raise equality and privacy concerns.

The European Union put the finishing touches this week to its plans for a COVID-19 certificate to ease travel across the 27-nation bloc and kickstart tourism at the start of the peak summer season.

As vaccination campaigns progress across the continent, governments have been exploring how documents, mostly digital, could help reopen borders by identifying people who are protected against the coronavirus.

Under the EU pass programme signed into law this week, restriction-free travel would be possible for people who have been fully vaccinated and for those who can show a negative COVID-19 test or immunity after recovering from the disease.

The system will be launched in July, but 13 member states, including Greece, Germany and Poland, have already started issuing the documents, which are free of charge and available in a digital and paper-based format.

As more technology firms develop digital certificates that can be accessed on smartphones by employers, airlines and others, here is all you need to know about health passports and certificates.

WHAT ARE HEALTH PASSPORTS?

The term health passport, or health pass, generally refers to documents – in paper or digital format – that certify a person is unlikely to either catch or spread a disease.

With the coronavirus, the proposed certificates would attest one of three things: that the holder has been vaccinated, has tested negative for the virus or has recovered from it.

Their use could allow governments to lift some pandemic-induced restrictions, allowing people to travel in planes, attend concerts, go to work or dine out, supporters say.

WHERE ARE THEY ALREADY BEING USED?

Different health passes have been trialed by countries around the world, from Bahrain to the Baltic, where Estonia and Lithuania are among the first nations to start using the “EU Digital COVID Certificate”.

China introduced an app-based system that uses travel and medical data to give people a rating indicating the likelihood of them having the virus, while in India everyone who gets the jab will get a QR code-based electronic certificate, the government said.

In Israel, anyone vaccinated or having recovered from COVID-19 with presumed immunity is issued with health ministry “Green Pass” certificates that grant access to various leisure venues, and Denmark has launched a similar “corona-passport”.

The Nordic country has also already joined the EU certificate scheme.

Presentation of the new digital COVID-19 vaccination passport COVPASS in Potsdam, Germany, May 27, 2021. Soeren Stache/Pool via REUTERS (image partially blurred at source)

WHO ELSE IS USING DIGITAL PASSES?

Global airline body IATA said this month that a digital travel pass for COVID-19 test results and vaccine certifications would go live in the coming weeks following a testing phase.

The mobile application, which has been tested by some airlines, was originally designed to facilitate passenger screening at the airport check-in and aircraft boarding stages.

However, IATA says it has since modified the app for when passengers are also checked by immigration officers on arrival.

On a smaller scale, the University of Illinois has made access to campus buildings dependent on negative tests.

Earlier this year, big tech companies including Microsoft Corp, Oracle Corp and healthcare companies Cigna Corp and Mayo Clinic in January become part of a coalition pushing for digital records of people who get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The project, called Vaccination Credential Initiative, aims to help people get encrypted digital copies of their immunisation records stored in a digital wallet of their choice.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN CONCERNS?

So-called immunity passports, which allow greater freedom to those who have recovered from COVID-19, could encourage some people to try to catch the virus, health experts have warned.

Vaccination certificates are already regulated by international law, which allows countries to require from travellers proof of vaccination for diseases such as yellow fever or polio as a condition of entry.

But extending the system to COVID-19 could face hurdles, with governments having to agree on which of the vaccines they accept, Alexandra Phelan, an infectious disease expert at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., said earlier this year.

Linking travel to a vaccination could also leave a large part of the world grounded as developing countries struggle to access sufficient vaccine supplies for their populations, Phelan said at the time.

WHY DIGITAL AND NOT PAPER?

Certificates could in theory be paper-based or digital, but trials have largely focused on digital solutions.

Inequitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine could incentivise people to falsify papers, and paper documents are inherently easier to forge, experts say.

But apps and other digital solutions combining health data and identification could exclude large numbers of people who do not own a smartphone, while also raising privacy concerns, Tom Fisher, a researcher at non-profit Privacy International said earlier this year.

Reporting by Umberto Bacchi, Editing by Jumana Farouky, Tom Finn and Helen Popper Thomas Reuters Foundation