Are vaccine passports for travel a good idea?

Nicola Brady
·6-min read
 (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Vaccine passports are a concept that’s been floating around for some time now. And despite a lot of back and forth and mixed messaging from the government, it seems like vaccination passports will likely play an important role in how we’ll travel once restrictions are eased. But while those who are desperate to hop on a plane are all onboard with the idea, there are a whole range of issues and concerns to be considered.

That said, even though concrete plans for a digital vaccine passport have yet to be confirmed in the UK, there are already some in action on a global scale. Israel has introduced its own Green Pass for those who have been vaccinated, and Denmark has announced plans for a digital vaccination passport. Other countries, like Greece and Spain, are strongly in support of such a scheme being introduced. The European Commission plans to publish a proposal for a “digital green pass” to facilitate travel around the EU this summer, president Ursula von der Leyen has said.

Airlines are leading the way, with some already trialling various iterations of a vaccine passport. Emirates was one of the first airlines in the world to trial the Iata Travel Pass, since picked up by British Airways, Air New Zealand and RwandAir. This mobile app enables passengers to create a “digital passport” before their flight, to verify that their pre-travel test or vaccination meets the requirements of the destination to which they’re flying. British Airways is also working on the mobile travel health app VeriFLY, which ensures that travellers have all the right documentation in place before heading to the airport.

This looks likely to be the format that will be used widely – once you’ve booked your flights, you’ll be informed about what you need to do in order to enter that country, whether that’s providing negative PCR tests, vaccinations, or both. Then you’ll be able to upload all of the information that confirms you have completed these steps, long before you even hop on the Gatwick Express.

And of course, if you’ve been to certain countries in Africa, you’ll be familiar with the little yellow card that confirms you are fully vaccinated against yellow fever. Effectively, the Covid vaccination certificate would be the same, though in a digital format and far less easy to misplace.

So far, so good. But what do people make of the idea? A poll commissioned by the Serco Institute looking into the public support of vaccine passports in the UK found that 66 per cent were in support of them in relation to international travel. Only 16 per cent opposed the concept. The strongest support came from the older age group, with 60 per cent of 55-64 year olds strongly supporting – presumably because they’ll be vaccinated sooner, and therefore free to book that holiday.

We’re already seeing that evidence emerge. Geordie Mackay-Lewis is the co-founder of travel agency Pelorus, which has already seen an uptick in bookings from older customers. “Now that large swathes of the population have been vaccinated, we are seeing a good steady return to travel planning from our older clients, who know they will have had both jabs soon and want to get back to exploring the world.”

But that brings us to the first ethical issue on the table. Professor Melinda Mills is the director of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science, University of Oxford, and is the one of the lead authors of a report into the use and development of Covid-19 vaccine passports. “There are some clear ethical concerns,” she says. “Whenever you introduce something like this, the first thing you have to think about is who would be excluded. If we introduced this tomorrow, we would exclude people who haven’t been vaccinated, or don’t have access to it. You’d immediately discriminate on age in the UK.”

This is one of the bigger concerns with regards to the fairness of the scheme. When vaccinations are being rolled out at different speeds, we could be looking at a scenario where those further down the list (or in countries with slower vaccine rollouts) may be more limited in how and where they can travel, while those who are fully vaccinated can jet set freely. In other words, the young people who have abided by strict lockdown rules might have to watch their vaccinated parents jet off to the Maldives while they’re stuck in Margate.

It’s an issue that a company like G Adventures, which has a younger client base, is conscious of. “Vaccine passports can't be the only solution presented,” says their managing director EMEA, Brian Young. “We need to also look at travel corridors and testing options for those who haven't yet been vaccinated, such as the younger generation of traveller.”

Concerns about age aren’t the only reason for a backlash. An online petition opposing the rollout has garnered over 230,000 signatures, with the main claim being “such passports could be used to restrict the rights of people who have refused a Covid-19 vaccine, which would be unacceptable.”

But while the majority of the backlash against these digital health passports relates to the inoculation element, it’s likely that vaccination information will form only part of these certificates. Ed Rayner is the commercial director of BLOK BioScience, creators of the privacy-focused digital health pass, BLOK Pass. While he is confident that we will be using digital health passports in the future, he believes that vaccination data will only make up one element of the certificate.

“We think it will become part of the evidence to travel,” he says. “If you haven’t got a vaccine, you can take a test. We want it to be non-discriminatory, with multiple ways for you to able to get on that flight: a test, or a vaccine, or maybe even one day you have antibodies that they measure.”

Doctor Stefan Küpfer is the medical director at Grand Resort Bad Ragaz, a medi-spa in Switzerland. “For me, the vaccination passport has other drawbacks. It’s clear we have a two class society – the vaccinated and the non-vaccinated,” he says. “But for me, the positive sides of vaccination passports [far outweigh] the drawbacks, because without vaccination, we cannot exit this pandemic.”

Ultimately, this is what the debate boils down to. Despite the mixed messages from government, the vocal concerns about ethical issues, civil liberties and data protection, vaccination passports seem like the only way to open up borders in a safe a manner as possible. While there are many issues to consider, vaccine passports could be the only viable solution.

“We’ll have to figure out something, and I think the travel industry is ahead in thinking about this, for obvious reasons and incentives,” says Melinda Mills. “Everyone wants to open up economies, and people want to travel again. There’s got to be some way to do it. And I think travel will be the first to make use of it.”

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