As vaccination numbers grow, it is increasingly likely that at least some places are going to ask for proof of covid-19 vaccination to enter their spaces and that some businesses may require their employees to be vaccinated if they are to return to offices. Given how some people became absolutely freaked out by the minimal requirement to weak masks, losing their minds to the extent of comparing it to Jews being forced by to wear the Star of David during the period of the Holocaust, one can only imagine how apoplectic they are going to get over this issue.
The most likely place where this requirement will begin to be imposed is in international travel, where the idea of people having digital vaccination certificates is gaining ground.
Keen to avoid losing another summer of holiday revenue to the coronavirus pandemic, the European Union, some Asian governments and the airline industry are scrambling to develop so-called COVID-19 vaccine passports to help kickstart international travel.
They’re working on systems that would allow travelers to use mobile phone apps to prove they’ve been vaccinated, which could help them avoid onerous quarantine requirements at their destinations.
Vaccination passports would add another digital layer to the multitude of existing coronavirus health and contact tracing apps many countries and U.S. states have rolled out. Their use domestically to reopen local economies has been hotly debated, with many opposed to requiring them for pubs, concerts and sporting events. However, there’s more momentum to use them for international travel, especially as countries like Iceland open their borders to vaccinated visitors and others like Saudi Arabia start allowing vaccinated citizens to travel abroad. The EU’s decision last week to open its borders to fully vaccinated travelers adds even more urgency.
So how will it work?
The first part of a vaccination passport is the user’s official or approved electronic immunization record.
The idea is that travelers will flash a QR code on their phones so it can be scanned at, say, an airport or train station, using an official verification app that checks with national databases, via an EU technical “gateway.”
Travelers also need a smartphone app to carry any eventual official vaccination certificates.
The EU’s project includes open source technology European countries can use to build their own official mobile wallets.
The International Air Transport Association, an airline industry group, has its smartphone IATA Travel Pass, which airlines including Qantas, Japan Airlines, Emirates, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have signed up to. A rival effort, CommonPass, has gained traction with carriers like Cathay Pacific, JetBlue, United and Lufthansa.
Travelers can already use the apps to verify that their COVID-19 test results are accepted at their destination. Travel Pass and CommonPass are so far only available to travelers on airlines that are using them. Both can also be integrated into airline travel apps so users can verify their vaccine status when they check in online. Both are also expected to work with the EU certificates. CommonPass says users will be able to import vaccine credentials by mid-June.
What about people who don’t have smartphones? Or families that don’t have a device for each member? IATA and EU officials say they’re are working on solutions, including paper-based options.
The US government is already exploring this possibility of requiring these passports for travelers going in and out of the country. Such vaccination passports (the yellow booklet issued by the WHO) used to be quite widely used in the past (I recall carrying one along with my passport when traveling) but are now much rarer as diseases such as cholera and smallpox have been brought under control. But they are still required when traveling to certain countries where yellow fever is endemic.
One big problem is that not all countries have enough covid-19 vaccines to go around.
Another problem will be detect people who create fake certifications, either the original paper vaccination certificate or the digital one.
But the biggest problem is likely to arise from anti-vaxxers who will argue that having to reveal their vaccination status is a massive invasion of their privacy, even though they are willing to share so many other personal details with the companies that they do business with. They may have difficulties with airlines since they are private companies and it is not clear, for example, if the courts in any country can force international airlines to not require these passports.
But that will not stop the anti-vaxxers from harassing and yelling at airport personnel who prevent them from boarding international flights.