What Covid vaccine passports mean for your summer holiday – and how to get one

Hugh Morris
·7-min read
Iata travel app on phone - SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty
Iata travel app on phone - SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty

Britons will be required to carry some sort of vaccine passport for international travel this summer.

The ban on foreign holidays is set to lift on May 17, and the NHS app will be ready to be used as a digital vaccine passport in time for passengers to go on their summer holidays from May 17, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps confirmed on May 7.

NHSX, the digital arm of the service, is racing to enable the app to be used by holidaymakers to prove that they are fully vaccinated when they arrive at their destination once the ban on travel is lifted from May 17, allowing them to sidestep quarantine or further testing.

The Government has said this would satisfy the entry requirements of a growing list of countries including Greece, Croatia and Spain.

Greece has said it will allow Britons who have been fully vaccinated to enter the country using the paper NHS card people are given at their vaccination appointments. This would mean that travellers who have been vaccinated twice would not need a negative PCR test to enter Greece.

Below we run through some of the most common questions about holiday vaccine passports.

Will a Covid vaccine passport be a physical document?

The UK is working to add a function to the NHS app that would be able to show, for the purpose of entering foreign countries, that they have been vaccinated or have been tested for Covid.

Mr Shapps said: “If needed, people in England who have both vaccine doses will be able to demonstrate their Covid vaccination status via the NHS app from May 17.

“Those without access to the app can request a letter from the NHS proving their vaccination status by calling 119, from 17 May.”

There are currently two leading prototypes that the UK Government could take inspiration from: one by Iata, the International Air Transport Association, called the Travel Pass; and two, the EU’s Digital Green Certificate, agreed this month by a host of European countries. The EU has said it will open to vaccinated travellers in June.

Both are digital, on smartphones, and would work in the same way a boarding pass on a phone would work today. However, it is not clear whether a code would be scanned or something would need to be shown to a member of staff; the EU says its version includes a QR code.

However, the most obvious comparison, a Yellow Fever vaccine certificate remains a physical document.

A warning to any government considering introducing the use of physical passports might be the saga that engulfed South Africa when it asked parents travelling with children to bring their unabridged birth certificates to the airport in a bid to clamp down on child trafficking.

The scheme was a calamity with confusion over who was meant to check what. A number of British families were refused boarding and left stranded at the airport having been unsure on exactly what documentation was needed.

How do I get a holiday vaccine passport?

You will presumably need to download the NHS app, if and when the Government develops this function on the application.

Any digital form of holiday vaccine passport would require access to your NHS profile and number, which knows whether you have received a coronavirus vaccination or not.

Travel medicine specialist Dr Richard Dawood said he had been assisting Iata, among others, with developing their apps. He said: “For the UK vaccination programme, there will need to be a way for travellers to download their vaccine records from the NHS securely.”

One might imagine then that those with proof of vaccine cards might be able to input a number into a vaccine passport app to confirm their status.

Other apps that are, or will be, used as vaccine proof are free. The Iata version is free to download and use, with the cost falling on the airlines that sign up to use it.

The EU has said the Digital Green Certificate will be free to users and, though digital, will be able to be shown if printed out on paper. Iata, too, said it can offer paper versions.

The Department for Transport would not comment on whether it was working to join the EU scheme, or indeed, Iata’s, but a spokesperson said: “We are working on a solution to enable residents to prove their Covid-19 status, including vaccination status, to other countries on the outbound leg. We are working on this as a priority and intend to have the solution ready as soon as possible.”

Tell me more about the Iata Travel Pass

Iata’s Travel Pass seems to be a global choice as it stands, having been trialled by more than 20 airlines, including British Airways, Singapore Airlines and Etihad.

Iata said: "Iata Travel Pass is a mobile application that helps travellers to store and manage their verified certifications for Covid-19 tests or Covid-19 vaccines.

"This will be important for governments that are likely to require either verified testing or vaccination proof as a condition of international travel during and after the Covid-19 pandemic."

It is not yet clear as to how the airlines that use the app will integrate the necessary documents with the requirements of national border checks.

Iata says the app will allow users to check the requirements of different countries, register test results as well as vaccinations and links with laboratories to confirm their Covid status. It would also be able to carry someone’s Yellow Fever vaccine proof, too.

Iata was clear to point out it was not mandating the need for vaccine passports. It said: "Governments decide the requirements to travel; airlines and passengers need to comply."

What about the EU Green Digital Certificate (GDC)?

Still in its development stage, the GDC has been agreed by member states to facilitate the return to international travel throughout the bloc.

The EU said: “A Digital Green Certificate will be a proof that a person has been vaccinated against Covid-19, has received a negative test result or has recovered from Covid-19 that can be used across all EU Member States. It can also be introduced in Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway as well as Switzerland.”

It works on the same principles as the Iata Travel Pass, offering to prove that a visitor has been vaccinated but also tested negative for Covid, with a PCR test. It will also show when someone has recovered the virus.

“In this way, as many persons as possible should be able to benefit from a Digital Green Certificate when travelling,” the EU said.

How will a vaccine passport keep my data private?

Both Iata and the EU have said they will ensure the sensitive medical data will be kept secure.

Dr Dawood said: "All the apps I have seen so far are based on the idea that data storage is local (on an individual’s smartphone) rather than central, with privacy at the fore.

"The Iata app will also be able to access (private) test results for travel and will link the available data to published entry requirements relating to intended travel, turning 'green' or 'red' according to whether the requirements have been correctly met, and the others seem to work in a similar way.

They are still in development and have had some small-scale trials. How the NHS will make vaccine data available, accessible, and verifiable, is the key practical question. It has been obvious from the very start that this would be needed, so it ought to have been clearly thought through.”

Which countries will accept holiday vaccine passports?

There is no official list but a number of countries have shown interest in their implication, including British holiday favourites, Spain, Portugal and Croatia. It is likely that each member of the EU will accept a vaccine passport once the scheme is introduced in June. Israel, Turkey and Cyprus have also expressed interest. See the full list here.

Will a holiday vaccine passport be used in the UK?

There is no clear indication that any scheme used for international travel will be required domestically, whether that is entering another country within the UK or for hospitality venues, such as pubs or restaurants.

When will it be introduced?

By May 17, according the Mr Shapps, when international travel resumes in the UK.