Are vaccine passports the key that unlocks international travel?

Israel is the first country to issue a vaccine passport.
A range of issues must be overcome before global vaccine passports can be introduced.

As Israel’s speedy rollout of a Covid vaccine begins to impact the country’s infection rate, its health ministry last week announced the creation of a Covid-19 vaccine certificate.

The so-called ‘green booklet’ will be issued to all those who receive two jabs of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine – the first batch of which arrived in the country little more than a month ago.

Holders will no longer need self-isolate after coming into contact with an infected person or travelling to countries with high infection rates. They will also be free to enter tourist areas without testing.

No launch date has been announced for the green booklet, but Irsael has gone further than anyone else in developing this kind of ‘vaccine passport’. No shortage of alternative schemes have been proposed.

In October, Estonia signed an agreement with the WHO to develop a digital immunization certificate that would allow for cross-border exchange of vaccination data. 

In Hungary, the government said it could require visitors to show their vaccination status to gain access to the country via an app showing immunity to Covid-19. 

Belgium is in favor of a ‘verifiable Covid vaccination certificate’ on an EU or even global level.

China, meanwhile, is pushing for a global identifier system, similar to the one it used to help contain the virus. This would allow an individual’s vaccine status to be scanned from a unique QR code on users’ mobile phone.

For businesses teetering on the brink and families enduring lockdown, news that the end could be in sight is encouraging. For the travel and hospitality industries in particular, the longed-for return of cross-border travel would be an answer to their prayers. Yet a vaccine passport will not be a ticket to life as before.

For one thing, it’s still unclear how long vaccine immunity lasts. It’s also argued that vaccine passports could create division in societies where the battle against Covid is not yet won.

How difficult would it be to maintain lockdown for those not yet innoculated when others in society are free to get back to life as normal? On the other hand, is it fair to restrict the freedom of individuals who no longer pose a threat of infection?

The problem gets thornier for international travel. Not all vaccines are created equally and a vaccine rolled out in one country might not be acceptable for travel to another. It’s hard to imagine a Trump administration welcoming visitors who’d only received China’s Sinovac vaccination. Will Biden’s administration see things differently? For that matter, will China give equal priority to opening air corridors with countries who have not purchased batches of a Chinese-developed vaccine?

For some, the idea of vaccine passports is a complete non-starter. France is one of several European outliers to emphatically reject the idea as a threat to data privacy and personal liberty. 

A report in 2020 by the AI research body, the Ada Lovelace Institute said immunity passports – a broader concept that covers all types of Covid immunity, including vaccination – would ‘pose extremely high risks in terms of social cohesion, discrimination, exclusion and vulnerability.’

Defeating Covid has always been about more than science. The next few months could reveal just how much more.

John Millichap

Co-founder & creative director, Signal8 Digital Marketing