Vaccine passports, the ultimate hope to travel in 2021

Anti-COVID digital certificates start to be rolled-out not without a mysterious touch

A second summer season is coming amid the pandemic, but this time a big part of the world is getting prepared not to lose everything by blocking traveling. Just as Israel is moving on with its Green Pass and China has its vaccination certificate, the European Commission has finally outlined a proposal on a “digital green certificate” to facilitate safe free movement in the EU – the so-called “vaccine passport”. The complete roll-out of the initiative in European countries, however, is still a mystery. 

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What is a COVID vaccine passport?

A vaccine passport is being ideated as a digital proof that a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19 or has a negative test result. The objective of this type of initiative is to assure Covid-free spaces by making this document a pre-requirement to access such areas – which has already raised moral and ethical issues. This type of initiative, however, is not exclusive of the European Commission or European countries.

What vaccine passports are being created?

There are at least 5 major initiatives going on right now although some are way more advanced than others.

  • The European Commission’s digital green certificate is being discussed a lot but little is still known about the roll-out, except that it is expected to be in place by the end of June. To make it to work throughout all European countries, interoperability is fundamental as this certificate should be issued and checked in a secure way, especially in airports and borders. The main features of the EU green certificate are:
    • It includes not only vaccination proof, but also tests and recovery certificates; 
    • Besides being initially thought of as a digital tool, it will actually have a paper version;
    • It will be free of charge.
  • IATA (The International Air Transport Association), which represents 260 airlines from all over the world, is leading the Travel Pass Initiative. It is a digital platform for passengers to have all information needed to travel safely and having their vaccination certificate securely held. This tool shall integrate with other initiatives, like the European digital green certificate. Singapore Airlines will do a pilot test with passengers flying from London to Singapore from 15-28 March.
  • Israel’s Green Passport is a digital certificate that will allow not only travelers to go back to the road but also for businesses, events, and synagogues to operate normally. 
  • The Chinese government is launching its vaccine passport on the social messaging app, WeChat. This digital document will allow individuals to travel, enter grocery shops and move more freely. 
  • The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) has launched its AOKpass app and France is trying it. During a month (starting this March), Air France passengers traveling to Martinique and Guadeloupe will use the app to prove they are not infected or sick with COVID-19.
  • Denmark is developing a digital passport for citizens to prove they have been vaccinated.
  • Estonia is creating its “Smart Yellow Card”, a digital vaccine certificate.
  • Iceland also has its vaccination certificate for people who have had their two shots, and travelers that show digital or paper proof of being vaccinated, enter the country without screening. 

Despite being the ultimate hope for the travel industry to avoid a massive breakdown, the “vaccine passport” or “green certificate” is not a consensus in some countries.

Which criticism is being raised about the vaccine passport?

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As the industry and governments started pushing for some initiative that could guarantee the return to tourism, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization came forward to say that we are still not there. 

In February, the WHO raised concerns about ethical, legal, technological and scientific blockers to the initiative, but the main concern is mostly practical: will there be enough vaccinated people to travel in summer? As for today, March, the answer in the majority of the world is still “no”, as most of the countries are not vaccinating as much as initially planned.

Dr. Katherine O’Brien, director of the immunization department of the World Health Organization, has explained in the European Parliament that the WHO is for the vaccine passports but that it is still unsure if the vaccines prevent the coronavirus from being spread. “The clinical trials demonstrated that these vaccines protect people against disease. What we don’t know yet from the clinical trials is whether or not the vaccines also protect people from just getting infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and whether or not it protects against transmitting to somebody else”, she said in WHO’s podcast about vaccination. 

Some countries, such as France and Belgium, have also expressed concern that making travel available only for vaccinated people would be unfair. In a recent poll by Euronews with 6,000 respondents, only 39% of the French approved the introduction of vaccine passports as a requisite for traveling.

Which countries support the vaccine passport?

The countries that first spoke strongly for the vaccine passport were Spain, Cyprus and Greece, making it clear that the summer season greatly depends on the possibility of Covid-free travel. 

But these are not the only countries that have somehow shown support for the initiative. The Euronews poll about the issue found that the majority of Britons (69%), Italians (65%) and Germans (53%) support the vaccine passports as a tool to make travel safer. 

Another poll, by YouGov to Bloomberg, showed that 65% of British people support a certificate that would allow not only travel but also the return to the workplace or bars and restaurants. The same poll also found that 76% of respondents support the requirement of a vaccination proof for travelers entering the UK.

Will the vaccine passport be mandatory to travel?

The European Commission has made it clear that this type of document covers not only vaccination but also testing and recovery certificates, which makes it possible for non-vaccinated citizens to travel. 

But will this initiative be ready on time to save the summer season?

We will know this in a couple of months.