Throughout 2020, countries around the world imposed a number of restrictions to prevent and check the spread of the COVID-19 virus. As the pandemic abates, and the restrictions are lifted, one of the prime concerns for policymakers now is to resume normal life and tackle the economic and social impact of the pandemic. Ensuring the economic revival and resumption of day-to-day activities, as well as checking further spread of the disease through travel, is occupying leaders. As the vaccination drive commences, the need to provide and share its proof is being felt across countries. One of the options that policymakers have suggested is the introduction of a vaccine passport.
While many countries have decided to introduce a vaccine passport for their residents, many have not made up their minds. Such passports would make travelling easier and check the adverse effect that travel restrictions are having on the economy and other sectors. However, there are merits and demerits of vaccine passports. Some countries have embraced them, others have rejected calling them discriminatory. As the new term is added to the pandemic lexicon, it is important to understand its definition and debate its advantages and disadvantages.
A vaccine passport is not essentially a passport but is a type of e-certificate. While each country would adapt the concept to suit its needs, it is fundamentally a standardised digital certification. The primary purpose of the certificate is to record the COVID-19 vaccine information, as well as the latest test status of its holder. The certificate is amenable to digital formats and can be used as a smartphone application (app). The reason that the certificate is called a ‘passport’ is its purpose of easing international travel and making security checks easier by means of a standardized digital document. While every country’s issuing authority would have its own requirement and rules, for users a typical way of using vaccine passports would be to enter COVID-19 related information including inoculation information, latest test results, scans, temperature, etc on the smartphone app, which would be verified by a credible authority—testing centre or a hospital.
The app could also determine if the user is fit to travel. Some apps could possess a QR code, through which all the required details for international travel would be easily accessible. Ideally, such a certificate would be mandatory and unanimously accepted to enable the bearers to be exempted from official border restrictions, screening requirements, as well as quarantine requests. The United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s (UNWTO) secretary general, ZurabPololikashvili has supported the idea. Highlighting the benefits of having a standardised digital certification system, the UNWTOhas asked international health and travel bodies to endorse vaccine passports.
The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed the world. According to John Hopkins University around 2.4 million people have lost their lives, while the world has seen more than 111 million cases. Moreover, the pandemic has also had a notable economic impact. According to World Bank, there was a “5.2 percent contraction” in global GDP in 2020. It further forecasts that soon the world would see, “the deepest global recession in decades.” To salvage the economic loss, policy makers are trying to resume economic activities, and easing restrictions where possible. Travel restrictions have compounded the economic effect and the need to resume travel has been felt. In this situation the necessity of accompanying inoculation with an internationally accepted proof is being acknowledged world over.
Though countries have agreed on the need for coordinating efforts and establishing a standardized certification, each has its own views on issuing a vaccine passport. Iceland has become the first Schengen country to issue digital vaccine certificates, which would serve as vaccine passports. Meanwhile, Denmark and Spain have also expressed their intention of issuing a digital document. Cyprus has made proof of being vaccinated mandatory to enter the country from March 2021. Hungary, Greece, Israel are other countries that have joined the vaccine passport bandwagon. However, the UK has refused to follow suit. In February 2021, the UK government maintained that for now, it has no intention of issuing vaccine passports to its residents. The BBC quoted the UK’s vaccine minister NadhimZahawi explaining that the government considered the practice of vaccine passports discriminatory, as it was a choice to be vaccinated. He believed that vaccine passports would take away the privilege of travel from people who choose not to be vaccinated. Other politicians have argued that it was too early to put vaccine passports in use, as the UK was still finalising its quarantine plans and COVID strains were still evolving, suggesting more policy changes could be on the cards.
Vaccine passports would certainly make international travel easier by saving time as well as effort that would be otherwise consumed in deciphering different documents or arranging COVID-19 related information before travel. Resumption of travel would be particularly beneficial for business travellers as well as students who are attending classes from home but wish to join back their global universities. However, vaccination drives have recently begun the world over. If vaccine passports are made mandatory to enter certain countries then people from countries that are not issuing such digital certification as well those who have been unable to get the vaccine would not be able to travel.
Currently, countries like India are issuing detailed certificates with QR scan codes post-vaccination. However, not all developing countries are doing the same. Attaining a vaccine passport is easier for residents of some countries, and difficult for others. As many developing countries are occupied with checking the spread of the COVID-19 virus and economic reconstruction it is advisable that compulsory vaccine passports are not forced on people aspiring to travel internationally, even if the debate on vaccine passports continues.