The U.K. Says It Will Figure Out Vaccine Passports. We’ll See.

When Boris Johnson mentioned “Covid status certification” in Parliament, he did so gingerly. After initially dismissing the idea, the U.K., like many other governments, is now considering whether some kind of proof of vaccination should be used to restore normal economic life.

Johnson’s decision to conduct a lengthy review into the matter — with cabinet trouble-shooter Michael Gove leading — says a couple of things. First, the government thinks that a vaccine certification could be useful not simply for international travel but in getting the economy fully reopened and in nudging some vaccine holdouts. Second, Downing St. knows that adopting such a system will come down to whether the public accepts the tradeoff of more government control for more freedom. That won’t be easy.

For many people, it would be a no-brainer. Flashing a digital certificate via an app or scanning a QR code to prove immunity would be a simple way to regain pre-pandemic freedoms like walking into a restaurant or sporting event. And a successful vaccination certification system could hasten a badly needed economic recovery.

There are, however, a number of practical, legal and ethical considerations that have to be thought through. Helpfully, a panel led by Oxford professors Melinda Mills and Chris Dye have set out 12 criteria for a well-conceived vaccine passport system, including the need for data security, international standardization and assurances that it will not violate labor laws or exacerbate structural inequalities in society. 

The first task of the U.K. government review is to determine what the document would actually certify and what it can (and can’t) be used for. Will the certificate display the efficacy of the particular vaccine given? Will it be updated to show which variants were covered or whether a booster shot was received? If those who have had the disease also have high levels of protection, as now seems to be the case, should they get certified too? 

Some countries are charging ahead without such thorough reviews. In Israel, all those who are at least a week past their second dose can download a “green passport” via the Health Ministry’s app. The passport, which is valid for six months and can also be issued to children who have recovered from the virus, allows the holder to attend events, shop or eat at restaurants.

Poland’s Ministry of Health provides a QR code that also lets the vaccinated enter restaurants and the like. Last week Bahrain announced that its BeAware app would be used to confirm immunity status. There are pilots and tests in Estonia, Denmark and other countries too. The Vaccine Credential Initiative, made up of U.S. healthcare groups along with Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp., Salesforce.com Inc. and other companies, is developing a global, interoperable system for providing a standardized vaccine credential.

Britain’s go-slow approach makes sense, though, since the biggest challenge it faces is winning public acceptance. Ultimately, a vaccine passport is a kind of virtual ID card, linking the holder and her medical information. Fierce battles were fought over whether to introduce identity cards in the mid-2000s, with concerns over civil liberties clashing against security arguments. The ubiquity of CCTV cameras in Britain tells you that privacy concerns can sometimes be set aside, however. And today’s technologies also mean we’re already constantly trading personal information for convenience.

But medical records are more fraught. In the 1980s, when the HIV/AIDS crisis was at its height, there was briefly a discussion of whether an ID card for the disease should be carried to help protect hospital staff or others treating an injured person with HIV. “When others are put at great risk, as in this case, it is legitimate to ask whether medical secrecy as a principle is inviolate,” Roger Higgs, one of the doctors considering the issue at the time, noted in the British Medical Journal.

He and others ultimately judged, however, that introducing such cards was impractical and problematic on a number of levels. Given the stigma of HIV, getting people to be screened, let alone carry an ID noting their infection, was one issue. “The analogy with seat belts requires that the doctor should wear gloves, not that the patient should carry a card,” Higgs concluded. 

Different time, different disease. This coronavirus spreads easily through the air. We can wear masks and gloves and still not be fully protected. Testing is already routine and increasingly mandatory in some settings, including schools, airports and some offices. 

While there may be more openness now to a vaccine certification, people will want assurances that their personal medical data is safe and that it won’t be used for unintended reasons or handed over to other parties (like immigration authorities). China’s Alipay Health Code app assigns users a QR code that includes their health status and travel history, which reportedly also sends personal data to police, a level of surveillance that would not be tolerated in Western countries.

Despite the various concerns, it’s likely we’ll need these sorts of tools in order to live with a virus that we can’t yet eradicate. But we need to allow time to interrogate the issues. The U.K. review is due by early September. By then, much more will be known about the effectiveness of vaccines, transmissibility of the virus and how other vaccine certification programs are working.

If Britain can adopt accepted standards rather than go it alone, then maybe cooler heads will prevail. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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