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|Vaccine passports – the future?, illustration photo, source: internet|
At the end of December, thousands of Europeans received the first doses of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine after the company received authorisation in the EU. Since then, other countries such as the US, Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, India, and several Asian countries, including Vietnam, have also started to receive or order vaccines to prepare for mass vaccination programmes.
This has awakened optimism about an end to the pandemic and the idea of a vaccine passport.
A heated discussion
Some parts of the world, such as the Seychelles, Cyprus, and Romania, have begun to remove quarantine requirements for visitors who have been vaccinated. In early January, Denmark also announced that it would issue vaccine passports to citizens within the next three to four months.
To get digital vaccine passports, Danish citizens will have to declare their medical and vaccination status on a government-issued app. Owners of such passports will be able to return to Denmark without quarantine and receive access to bars, restaurants, and hotels.
Iceland became the first European nation to issue vaccine certificates in late January. While Greece also announced it will unveil a digital vaccination certificate for those who have received two doses of the vaccine, Israel recently announced that a so-called Green Badge will allow vaccinated people to go to restaurants, attend public events, and travel freely. Other countries that are currently issuing or waiting for vaccine passports include the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, and Sweden.
Despite being supported by several countries and seen as a necessary condition for freedom of movement, vaccine passports have received mixed reactions in many places. The UK, the first in the world to vaccinate people against COVID-19, had previously denied plans for vaccine passports to allow people to travel abroad, but they can ask for proof of vaccination in case they need to travel.
One of the reasons not to issue a vaccine passport is that COVID-19 vaccination is not compulsory in the UK, said MP Nadhim Zahawi. The EU is also divided over vaccine passports. Some, such as France, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, as well as organisations like the World Health Organization and the European Commission, also argued that vaccine passports do not ensure safe travel.
In France, Health Minister Olivier Véran has repeatedly said it is too early to discuss vaccination passports since fewer than 2.5 million French people have received the first dose and because it is unclear whether the vaccine prevents transmission.
Meanwhile, Germany also advised not to loosen many of the restrictions. To date, the 27 EU member states have only agreed on mutual recognition of COVID-19 test results. The introduction of vaccine passports remains a story of the future, especially as more new coronavirus variants are discovered. The European Commission says it will not be rushed into a decision on passports while only 3 per cent of Europeans have been vaccinated.
The US also expressed caution with vaccine passports as President Biden asked government agencies to evaluate the feasibility of linking coronavirus vaccine certificates with other vaccination documents and producing digital versions of them.
Although controversies abound, governments and technology firms around the world are leaning towards using vaccine passports to recover the economy and revive the tourism and entertainment industries.
Some companies and tech groups like IBM have also started to develop smartphone applications where users can upload detailed information about their tests and vaccinations to create a digital health certificate or use QR codes to display their vaccination status to the authorities without disclosing sensitive information.
Zurab Pololikashvili, secretary general of the UN’s World Tourism Organization, has called on the world to apply vaccine passports on a larger scale as an indispensable element for the tourism industry’s recovery.
“One key element vital for the restart of tourism is consistency and harmonisation of rules and protocols regarding international travel,” he said in an email. “Evidence of vaccination, for example, through the coordinated introduction of what may be called ‘health passports’ can offer this. They can also eliminate the need for quarantine on arrival, a policy which is also standing in the way of the return of international tourism.”
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) supports vaccine passports and also piloted their digital application called IATA Travel Pass piloted on Singapore Airlines flights late last year. IATA said it could expand the programme to other destinations if the pilot is successful.
Singapore Airlines also plans to incorporate health certifications into a mobile app in mid-2021. Passengers who have tested for COVID-19 at clinics designated by the airline will be issued an electronic certificate with a QR code or a paper health certificate.
Some airlines, like Qantas, said they would make vaccine documentation mandatory on all flights while Gulf Air, Emirates, and Etihad will test a travel pass designed by the IATA.
In Vietnam, the first batch of vaccines was imported a few days ago as the first happy signal for reopening. Once the country is truly safe from the pandemic, ministries and departments will study to issue a passport similar to the vaccine passports.
However, tourism expert Truong Nam Thang, a member of tourism research projects of the Tourism Advisory Board and the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, said that by December, the nation will temporarily achieve herd immunity in key economic and tourism cities. By June 2022, Vietnam hopes to reach herd immunity across the country.
Thus, it will not be until the end of the second quarter of 2022 that Vietnam can normalise international trade as well as gradually restore tourism and international travel.