“Could I see your vaccine passport please?” This a stark request for personal special category of data that many of us could be facing very soon, and as the UK begins to unlock national restrictions and the COVID-19 vaccine programme progresses, the question of whether vaccine passports should play a part in this process continues to dominant the COVID-19 related news. The hard-line position is that the introduction of vaccine passports could accelerate the reopening of key services and advance a revival of social and economic activity, as well as the obvious public health benefits. Sceptics, however, point to the practical and ethical issues of introducing a new form of identification. In this piece we address both sides of the argument and what industries we can see realistically introducing them.
Clearly, the main argument in favour of vaccine passports is that it would allow a safer, perhaps quicker, return to normality. A vaccine passport system would allow for the return of pre-pandemic activities, such as leisure, hospitality, travel and sports, without the need to compromise personal or public health. Vaccine passports could be used in combination with other measures, such as widespread testing and track and trace. Essentially, it would give confidence that large groups of people can now mix without a real possibility that people will fall ill or be unknowingly spreading the virus. Services and businesses that are less able to operate under social distancing measures would benefit greatly. This would not only provide a huge boost to the economy, but it would also reduce the strain on the NHS in terms of dealing with new hospitalisations. Vaccine passports could also be an invaluable aid in care homes. In fact, Government consultation is already underway about making COVID-19 vaccination a condition of employment for workers deployed in care homes with older adult residents.
Vaccine passports could provide a strong incentive to be vaccinated. Significant parts of the population are either against, or relaxed, about being vaccinated. Statistics show that a disproportionately large percentage of BAME people, that are belong to black and other ethnic minority groups, are against getting jabbed. In the extreme, some conspiracy theorists believe that the vaccine is a 5G chip designed to control the mind. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has recently urged all those that are eligible for the vaccine to get inoculated against COVID-19 and, it is thought that, introducing vaccine passports as a requirement to enjoying things like the pub, sporting venues and travel could encourage those who are reluctant to be vaccinated, to do so for their own freedoms. However, whilst this argument stands up to those who are simply unwilling to be vaccinated, the situation can be a little more delicate. There could be a number of reasons why people do not wish to be vaccinated including having health concerns, allergies, religion and their reasoning could be related to a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. Also, given that the vaccine rollout is based on a priority system (vulnerability and age), most older workers will be vaccinated before those under 30 years old have the chance to be. Industries introducing vaccine requirements potentially open themselves up to discrimination claims from consumers and even employees.
It is over a year since the pandemic began and many of us are still longing for a holiday in the sunshine, in continental Europe or further afield. However, many countries are still reluctant to open their borders for international travel until a system is in place which would safeguard the health of the domestic population, especially after many countries have worked so tirelessly in bringing the pandemic under control. One potential ticket to opening the borders could be vaccine passports. Knowing that an international arrival passenger to a destination abroad has been vaccinated and has a certain level of immunity to the virus means that the traveller is less likely to fall ill and place a strain on the visiting country’s national health system. It would also provide a much needed respite for a travel industry affected badly by the pandemic, with reported losses of £750 billion during 2020. The latest government rumblings is that vaccine passports, specifically for international travel, could be introduced as early as May 17 and will form part of the government’s travel traffic light system. However, some argue that international passports could encourage people to forge and trade certification on the black market. Again, serious thought needs to be given to the practical and legal safeguards needed.
Many still point to the science and argue that it is too early to introduce vaccine passports, as the effectiveness of the vaccine is still being debated. Parts of the government remain sympathetic to the idea of vaccine passports – if there is refutable evidence that jabs reduce transmission. A recent study led by Public Health England suggest that a single dose of the vaccine reduces person-to-person transmission in half. Health secretary Matt Hancock called the findings “terrific news”, adding: “It further reinforces that vaccines are the best way out of this pandemic as they protect you and they may prevent you from unknowingly infecting someone in your household.” However, many feel that 50% protection from a single dose is still not enough to justify introducing vaccine passports. Scientifically speaking, at what point or mark does something become wholly justifiable? This is a question we still have no real clear answer to. There is also concern for COVID-19 variants that continue to rear their heads. The South African variant was much the talk earlier in the year and, most recently, the Indian variant (officially known as B.1.617) continues to be found in pockets across the UK. Because it is not clear whether the vaccines used are effective against the new variants. Some argue that it would be premature to introduce a passport system.
There are real concerns over privacy. Private medical records are usually safely stored by the NHS, however, information on vaccine passports will supposedly be shared with all manner of industries, from nightclubs to immigration control. Clearly, significant legal and practical safeguards will need to be put in place in order to protect from such data being misused or traded with private companies. Ordinary business will need to be brought up to speed with GDPR requirements or face the possibility of legal action. Some experts have warned that vaccine status could be used to create a “personal risk score”, similar to a credit score. One possible solution would be to build the vaccine passport into the NHS track and trace app, however, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of the app.
Coming back to the point on discrimination, The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has expressed concern over the introduction of vaccine passports. They warn that they could create a "two-tier society" in which people in marginalised groups, where take-up is lower, and people unable to get the vaccine may be excluded from accessing essential services; and prevented from entering workplaces and places of enjoyment. As such, any blanket rule on vaccines is potentially discriminatory and would require huge government backing to introduce new legislation, which looks unlikely at this point. However, the Vaccines Minister, Nadhim Zahawi, has suggested it would be “completely remiss and irresponsible” of ministers not to trial vaccine passports. In fact, plans are already underway to pilot them at this summer’s FA Cup Final. Watch this space!