Within weeks of the World Health Organisation (WHO) confirming that the coronavirus was a global pandemic, dozens of companies and countries were rushing to announce plans to offer health passports identifying those protected against the virus as a mean of reopening borders.
Supporters of the passport say identifying people who are immune to the novel coronavirus or at lower risk of spreading it could help open up travel and other services. But, critics have raised questions about privacy, health and discrimination.
What are health passports?
The term health passport, or health certificate, generally refers to documents – in paper or digital format – that certify whether a person is unlikely to either catch or spread disease. They are also referred to as vaccine passports.
Both digital and paper health passports are used across the globe. Given the ongoing pandemic, many countries do not allow foreign travellers to enter without a health certificate.
However, this isn’t the first time the world has been engaged in a conversation about “vaccine passports.” There is even a version of a passport currently in use – the World Health Organisation-approved yellow card, which since 1969, has been used as a document for travellers to certain countries to show proof of vaccination for yellow fever and other shots. Without which they can’t visit those countries. Similar discussions have been held over plague outbreaks and smallpox.
What’s in the Health Passport Certificate?
In the context of COVID-19, a health passport certifies one of three things:
- Whether the holder is vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus
- If the holder tested negative for the COVID-19 virus or
- If the holder recovered from COVID-19
The use of health passports could allow governments to lift some pandemic-induced restrictions, allowing people to travel in planes, attend concerts, go to work or dine out.
Digital health passports are a hot topic of discussion as they are likely to be crucial to the reboot of international travel. But which countries are using (or plan to use) digital vaccine passports? And which countries aren’t? Here’s what you need to know.
How to get a health passport?
Most countries have their own version of a health passport. These can either be attained through a government body or national health app or through a healthcare professional.
The European Commission is currently working on the ‘Digital Green Certificate’ as European leaders have called for an EU-wide vaccine passport as a ‘matter of urgency’. The certificate will provide digital proof that a person has either been vaccinated, received a negative test result or recovered from COVID-19. The certificate is intended to facilitate free movement in the EU and prove the results of COVID-19 testing, which is often required under public health restrictions. It is not intended to be a pre-condition to free movement, which is a fundamental right in the EU.
France became the first EU country to trial an app-based travel pass that stores negative COVID-19 test results and will soon allow vaccination certificates on flights to Corsica and its overseas territories.
Last October, Estonia and the World Health Organisation started a pilot for a digital vaccine certificate.
Lithuania said it would roll out national digital COVID-19 immunity certificates by early May to allow people to bypass restrictions on some activities, including dining indoors, attending sporting events and holding large parties.
British Airways has said it would trial a mobile health app that combines travel verification documents and COVID-19 test results to ensure UK passengers are compliant with destination entry requirements.
In Denmark, the Coronapas passport is available via an app or in paper format to people who have been vaccinated or have tested positive for the virus two to twelve weeks previously or negative over the last 72 hours.
The Middle East
Bahrain launched a digital COVID-19 vaccine passport in February, making it one of the first countries to do so. Its ‘BeAware’ app displays a green shield alongside an official certificate. Users must have received two doses of a vaccine, separated by 21 days, and then wait for two weeks for antibodies to develop.
China has put in place an app-based health code system that uses travel and medical data to give people a red, yellow or green rating indicating the likelihood of them having the virus – and whether or not they can walk around freely.
In India, everyone vaccinated will get a QR code – a machine-readable graphic code made up of black and white squares – based electronic certificate, the Health Ministry has said.
The travel industry has urged the Biden administration to create a set of standards for digital health credentials to lift travel restrictions that have devastated demand for leisure and business trips abroad over the last year. The administration has said it will leave developing digital health credentials up to the private sector. Federal officials also said they don’t intend to keep a database of vaccination records; that will be left to individual states.
On a smaller scale, the University of Illinois has made access to campus buildings dependent on negative tests.
While Australia does not have any national digital vaccination certification process in place, all immunisation data is stored by the Department of Social Services. However, the Australian Government is in talks with the International Air Transport Association about a new digital certificate that could unlock quarantine-free overseas travel for vaccinated Australians.
Aruba is the first Caribbean country to accept the CommonPass digital health pass for entry. The pass is available on JetBlue flights from Boston to the island. JetBlue plans to expand the use of CommonPass for travellers to Aruba from cities throughout the carrier’s network. Currently, JetBlue serves Aruba from New York JFK and Fort Lauderdale as well as Boston.
The African Union Commission is developing a ‘My COVID Pass’ for travellers, allowing for the mutual recognition of COVID-19 test results and vaccines.
Kenya Airways and Ethiopian Airlines are testing a new digital COVID-19 passport system to allow travellers and airport authorities to authenticate COVID-19 test certificates before departure. The Trusted Travel Pass pilot programme was developed by the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If successful in its test phase, the digital pass will be rolled out to all African Union Member States to standardise travel protocols throughout the continent.