Vaccine passports: The answer to re-opening the UK economy?

The UK government has announced people will be able to prove their vaccine status via the NHS app, but the scheme raises questions about fairness, privacy, and implementation.

'Life after coronavirus' displayed on a mobile phone amid maps and statistics.
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The UK government has announced that the official National Health Service (NHS) app will allow UK citizens to indicate their vaccination status — a move that could help speed up re-opening the nation's economy post-pandemic.

Separate from the beleaguered Test and Trace app the UK government developed in 2020 — one estimate for the overall effort is £37 billion over two years —  the NHS app allows users to request repeat prescriptions; book doctor’s appointments; and view their medical records. It is available to all UK citizens aged 13 and over registered with a GP in England.

As of Monday, the app will also provide proof of users’ Covid-19 vaccination status to help satisfy the requirements of international travel.  

Despite the wide-spread acknowledgment that vaccinations hold the key to a return to some kind of normal, there has been a lot of debate about vaccine passports and the potential privacy and security issues they present.

Speaking at the 2021 Data Protection Practitioner’s Conference on May 5, Elizabeth Denham, head of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), said that plans to introduce COVID-19 vaccine certification won’t work in practice unless ministers can earn public trust.

Warning that it isn’t good enough to simply expect adoption based on wider social benefits, she added: “There is simply not an option today for any organisation, public or private sector, to say, "How we use data is complex, but this service is important, so just trust us.' And that applies just as much to COVID status certificates, as it does to social media companies or app developers.”

The debate around the viability of vaccine passports isn’t limited to the UK. China, Spain and Sweden have all announced support for the initiative and believe it’s an important factor in helping to reopen the economy. Elsewhere, the French and Brazilian governments have already voiced their political opposition to them. And in the US, the Biden Administration has taken a hands-off approach to a national vaccine passport.

How the vaccine passport works

An update will roll out on the NHS app that will display coronavirus vaccine records. Currently, the app is not able to record coronavirus test results – users will need to download the Test and Trace app to access that functionality. But the government website says it hopes to incorporate this feature in a future update.

Furthermore, the app is only available to those registered with a GP in England, although the government says it is working with the Welsh, Scottish, and Northern Irish administrations to ensure the service will be available to everyone across the UK.

For those without a smartphone or tablet that can run the app, a paper version can be requested by calling 119 at least five days after receiving a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

It’s important to note that while the UK has put 12 countries on its Green travel list, meaning people travelling from those countries won’t have to quarantine when entering the UK, very few countries are currently allowing entry to UK citizens, whether they’ve been vaccinated or not.

Few countries currently allow entry on proof of vaccination alone. So most people will still need to follow other rules when travelling abroad, such as taking a pre-departure coronavirus test.

Lingering concerns

Although the vaccination programme the UK has undertaken this year seemingly represents light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, there are widespread concerns about linking people’s freedom to their health.

“COVID 19 vaccination passports are a hot potato for governments around the world, especially those who want to demonstrate a libertarian attitude to freedoms,” said Mark Keddie, global director of privacy at Veritas Technologies. “But, as the pressure to unleash business and let corporations claw back the benefits of international travel is pitted against the pressure to defend the hard-earned protection of vaccine-driven COVID immunity, vaccine passports will continue to be put forward as solutions.”

Additionally, one of the initial versions of the UK’s Test and Trace app came under fire when it was revealed that personal data about people with coronavirus, including full names, dates of birth, phone numbers, and home and email addresses, would be collected by the NHS as part of the programme and kept for 20 years.

While that idea was swiftly abandoned, concerns are once again likely about how data collected by the vaccine passport scheme could be used outside its intended scope.

Concerns have also been raised around the link between vaccinations and returning to work. A Forrester report in March found that as mass vaccination programmes get underway, employers have an important decision to make: how to accelerate the “back to normal” effort without overstepping bounds.

The report found that 40% of European and 30% of US employees are ready to return to the office, but employers need to prepare for an array of new privacy, ethical, legal, and compliance challenges as they plan to leverage vaccine and immunisation passports to return at least some employees to the office.

The report also stressed the importance of avoiding the privacy and ethical pitfalls of a “no jab, no job” policy, as asking employees to carry proof of inoculation with them to enter the workplace introduces privacy and ethics risks. Companies have been urged to collect only the minimum amount of data needed to trigger specific policies, encrypt medical data, and enforce strict access, sharing, and deletion policies to ensure fairness and protection.

“While COVID-19 is loosening its grip, it’s not going away,” said Enza Iannopollo, senior analyst at Forrester. “Vaccine passports don’t offer the silver-bullet solution that many might hope for easing pandemic protocols and restrictions, and businesses should be planning for life with COVID in the medium to long term. Our overarching message to organisations everywhere is one of caution.

"With the right planning and consideration, the return to work will be smoother and more successful for all involved," Iannopollo said.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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