EU leaders have announced plans to present a “digital green card” proposal, effectively creating a vaccination passport scheme in Europe.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said the digital passport would detail proof that the person has been vaccinated against Covid-19, test results for those who haven’t been vaccinated yet, plus information on Covid-19 recovery.
“The Digital Green Pass should facilitate Europeans‘ lives,” she said in a further tweet. “The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad – for work or tourism.”
We could see a version of these vaccine passports – also referred to as immunity passports – implemented in the UK.
Matt Hancock told Monday’s Downing Street press conference the UK was “working with international partners” on the issue. “The EU is part of those discussions, as are several other countries around the world, and it’s obviously important work,” he said.
It marks a shift from repeated statements from cabinet ministers in December saying there were no plans to introduce vaccine passports in the UK. This was despite the Telegraph reporting that the government is funding at least eight separate firms to develop such a system.
How would the passports work?
The digital passports, or “green cards”, are likely to be accessible on smart phones. They’ll detail the health status of an individual and, although they’re primarily being discussed in relation to travel and tourism, they could be used to open up other parts of society, from bars to theatres.
“What I’d also say is that, in a sense, this already exists because you need to have a test before you can travel to the UK,” Matt Hancock said on Monday.
“As far as I understand it from the details set out today, the EU proposal is that certification includes both whether you’ve had the vaccine and also whether you’ve recently had a test for those who can’t get vaccinated yet, which is obviously particularly important.
“Therefore it’s something that we’re working with them and others on and it matters that we get the details of this right for international travel.”
What are the concerns around them?
Charities including the Ada Lovelace Institute have raised concerns about data privacy and the potential for discrimination. For example, if a person who’s received a vaccine is offered a job over someone further down the waiting list, or someone who is pregnant and can’t have the jab.
The head of the UK’s data privacy watchdog, Elizabeth Denham, told MPs in January she can see the benefit of these passports, but also warned they came with privacy concerns. “We would approach a detailed proposal around a vaccination passport or a freedom passport in the way that we do any initiative,” she said. “That is, is it necessary? Does it work – does it do what it says on the tin? Is it proportionate? And is there transparency?”
Denham also alluded to the issues of discrimination – “they touch on human rights, they touch on whether or not we’re going to create a two-tier society based on whether you have a jab in the arm”.
This debate around the ‘vaccine apartheid’ has been echoed by others. “From an ethical point of view, vaccine passports are completely unacceptable,” Dr Clare Wenham, assistant professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics told The Telegraph.
“You’re going to create a two-tier system and history shows that when you create division within society it leads to civil unrest. It’s vaccine apartheid.”
What’s happening around the world?
The UK cruise company, Saga, became the first tour operator to stipulate that passengers must be vaccinated against Covid-19 before setting sail.
Some countries – including Denmark and Sweden – have announced plans to introduce such passports. The Swedes want an ‘international standard’, which means they want the World Health Organisation, or the EU, to agree on a standard that would mean their passport would be accepted across borders.
Greece and Spain have been among the EU countries lobbying for an EU-wide passport, because they’re dependent on tourism and want to get the sector up and running – in some capacity – in time for the summer.
On the topic of vaccine passports, the prime minister’s spokesperson told PA: “We have said that we are looking at the issue of vaccine passports. As you can expect, DfT (the Department for Transport) will work [with] and do speak to countries across the world in terms of how they may look to introduce passports.”
The spokesperson would not pre-empt the outcomes of the UK government’s review. But “of course you can expect us to speak to the EU and other countries on how they may implement any similar sorts of policies”, they added.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.