In June 2021, Bruce Springsteen announced that he would only perform to an audience that could provide proof of full vaccination status. A month later, when probed about the topic, Eric Clapton declared he “will not perform on any stage where there is a discriminated audience present.”
Governments around the world are hastily rolling out COVID-19 vaccination status certifications. An apparent win-win for citizens desperate for things to “return to normal” and the reactivation of a dampened global economy, the esteemed Ada Lovelace Institute (the Institute) asks governments to consider:
- Is this the right solution at the present time; and
- If it is the right solution, how can we ensure these programs are designed to best protect our safety and rights?
Certificates, passports, or green passes…?
As governments contemplate how the post-Pandemic world works, an obvious solution comes to mind: an official document that proves a vaccination status. This is known as a vaccination certificate.
Vaccination passports go a step further, granting entitlements to do certain things, for example, accessing indoor facilities, attending events such as “Springsteen on Broadway” concerts, and even (dare I say) international travel.
Reception to the international roll-out
Israel paved the way for vaccination passports in March 2021 with an enormously successful ‘green pass’ program. The program allowed for a controlled reactivation of the economy. Equally, its entitlements greatly incentivised vaccination in young people, such that the program was retired due to redundancy.
Soon after, the European Union introduced a vaccine passport, which allowed the listed person to travel across 27 member nations free from mandatory quarantine.
In Australia, the Express Plus Medicare smartphone app provides proof of full vaccination; however, a fully developed passport system, complete with entitlements and mandatory conditions, has yet to be rolled out.
However, passport programs have not always been widely accepted. The White House rejected a federal COVID passport scheme, leaving it up to the States to implement their own programs. As of 1 July 2021, only four States have active vaccination passport programs.
France recently announced a passport program for entry into public venues, entertainment facilities, and public transport. Days later, Parisian streets were flooded with over 160,000 libertarians and anti-vaxxers, armed with the obvious contentions: discrimination, curtailment of liberties, data and privacy invasions, and government surveillance.
What do the experts have to say?
On 17 February 2021, the Ada Lovelace Institute, a highly regarded independent research body, released a Rapid Expert Deliberation on the role that vaccination passports play in a Post-Pandemic society. The expert panel, chaired by Sir Jonathan Montgomery (Professor of Health Care Law and University College of London), included prominent legal and science academics in the United Kingdom.
- Vaccination passports providing entitlements to fully vaccinated people are not currently justified because vaccination status does not yet offer clear or conclusive evidence about transmission risk
- While passports enhance the freedoms enjoyed by some, it could enable a denial of personal liberties granted to others
- If passports are to be rolled out, the program needs to have a clear purpose, strict usage guidelines, and mechanisms that prevent risks arising from digital infrastructure.
Why governments with programs already implemented may have jumped the gun
The Institute cautioned against the roll-out of digital passports while so much remains unknown about COVID-19. Relying on the World Health Organisation findings, the Institute noted the lack of evidence proving that inoculation prevents transmission. Therefore, the use of certificates may actually increase the risk of continued transmission. It also outlined the risk of using vaccine certificates proving vaccinations when the coronavirus is a moving target and the efficacy of vaccinations against mutations remains unclear.
Maria O’Sullivan of Monash University’s Castan Centre for Human Rights Law recently criticised Prime Minister Morrison’s musings over a future Australian program, stating,
“I don’t see how we could restrict people from businesses or work if they haven’t been given the chance to be vaccinated yet.”
This echoes the opportunity cost outlined by the Institute, which queried the short-term expenditure required to implement the program at the expense of potentially more important policies, for example, putting resources towards getting people vaccinated in the first place.
The Institute notes the rise of private sector bodies developing their own digital passport programs designed to be used within organisations. It is difficult to envision the efficacy of a passport program, which is disjointed and piecemeal. Even at a state or international level, it would be necessary for countries to work together to formulate passport programs.
If we’re committing to rolling out programs right now, let’s do it the right way
Despite its warnings, the Institute recognises the urgency for solutions balancing economic reactivation and community safety.
The Institute recommended the following critical measures for governments that are proceeding to roll out a passport program:
- A passport program must have a clear and consistent purpose and usage guidelines, formulated by lawmakers, not developers
- There must be scientific pre-conditions that allow governments to better understand vaccine efficacy and transmission
- Consultation must be had with expert groups, the World Health Organisation, and the public, particularly communities likely to face disadvantages, discrimination, or unique risks associated with the program.
- The program must be sufficiently dynamic. It must be responsive to mutations and developing science, as opposed to being valid only to a fixed date of issue
- The program must be responsibly designed, emphasising ethical data collection and use, security, accountability, health and safety considerations, and employment law provisions.
Despite Eric Clapton’s personal stand against Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s proposition of UK vaccine passports, it appears he may be left dancing in the dark as more countries move to the “Springsteenian Approach”: vax proof or no entry.
However, if COVID passports are to avoid a repeat of the CovidSafe app fizzer, it is important to bring along most of the community. The red flags identified by the Ada Lovelace Institute will bubble away if governments jumped this gun too soon. If COVID passports are the right policy, do the programs have adequate measures to ensure they best protect their citizens from discrimination, data impingement and government surveillance? Can we get some bipartisanship around their use and the safeguards?
Authors: Lucy Goodlad and Peter Waters.