I’ve had a week away from the matrix, maybe you noticed, maybe you didn’t. Maybe you don’t care! But in that week the whole debate over covid passports seems to have stepped up a gear or so.
Setting out his roadmap out of lockdown, the Prime Minister said that a review was in the works to “consider the potential role of Covid status certification in helping venues to open safely” while also being “mindful of the many concerns surrounding exclusion, discrimination, and privacy”.
The EU has announced details of a ‘Green Pass here to provide “proof that a person has been vaccinated” against Covid-19, as well as details of tests.
Regardless of what you call them; Covid status certificates, vaccine passports, immunity cards or a digital green pass, the idea remains largely the same: a piece of documentation, either physical or digital, which can be used to prove you have some form of immunity against Covid-19 in order to access a place or service.
The UK government has denied repeatedly that they are ‘not currently considering a Covid passport, but going by recent discussions that seems to have changed somewhat. I wrote a bit about it here
When it comes to a covid passport, most governments and companies are envisioning some form of app. This is because they are more difficult, but not impossible, to fake.
Europol recently warned that it had already seen numerous cases of criminals selling fake Covid-19 test results to allow travellers to dodge international restrictions.
If the UK is stuck for inspiration regarding a vaccine passport app it could look to Israel, where citizens can now enjoy many newly-reopened activities provided they prove their vaccination status using a government-backed digital ‘Green Pass’.
Israel use a unique QR code via the official Ramzor app or the Ministry of Health website. Those without internet access can also get theirs via an automated hotline.
However, no accommodations are available for those either unable or unwilling to take the coronavirus vaccine. In fact, the country’s health minister Yuli Edelstein has publicly stated that “whoever does not get vaccinated will be left behind”, arguing that it is a citizens “moral duty” to take the vaccine.
Much like Israel, the UK is reportedly considering adding a feature to an existing app rather than creating something from scratch. The Times reports that the preferred option is the existing NHS app allowing users to provide their vaccination status to businesses and venues.
iProov announced in January that trials of such passports, developed alongside fellow tech firm Mvine, were already underway, with a view to finish by the end of March 2021.
But this isn’t the only project on the government’s radar. In total, the government’s science and research funding agency Innovate UK has handed out £450,000 of funding to eight similar ventures, of which £75,000 has already been awarded to iProov and Mvine.
Companies like AOKpass and CommonPass — which are already being trialled in airports around the world — offer a scannable QR code which provides only a yes or no answer to the scanning party regarding the holder’s coronavirus status. The user’s personal and medical data are verified separately by the company and so isn’t displayed to airports and airlines when travelling.
UK-based firm VST Enterprises, however, is wary of “unregulated” QR codes, choosing to secure health data on the V-Health Passport with its own patented VCode technology. Airports are likely to be the first setting where people will use a digital health passport in the future. Back in terra firma, many sectors see vaccine passports as a workable way to get their businesses open again.
The other option for some larger venues such as nightclubs and theatres is mass testing upon entry. Indeed, the Prime Minister has even suggested that 30-minute lateral flow tests could be used to open up “those parts of the economy we couldn’t get open last year”.
“The situation remains dire right across the events and entertainment sector,” said Mark Davyd, CEO of the Music Venue Trust.
Critics argue that it simply isn’t workable for theatres, gyms and similar businesses to handle sensitive medical data. Mandatory use of a vaccine passport will likely lead to operational headaches aside from the privacy and civil liberties question.
Businesses with a younger demographic are also concerned that the prioritisation of the vaccine roll-out means they would have to wait to welcome back their core customer base.
Because the age groups that use night clubs, the idea of vaccine passports aren’t going to be much help. Michael Kill, CEO of Night Time Industries Association said “If you are 23 you might not be vaccinated until August or September, so that doesn’t really help the industry.”
This leads to concerns over age discrimination! In a recent report, the Royal Society set out 12 criteria for a viable vaccine passport which included that it must be affordable, abide by existing laws, and meet basic ethical standards.
Data privacy is also included on the list, and is one reason that talk of vaccine passports has raised alarm bells among civil liberties groups.
We really need to discuss how society can open up again, instead there’s a lot of worry about possible state coercion. Are these worries unfounded? We won’t have long to wait.
The country could reopen into a two-tier society where people who can’t or refuse to have the vaccine are going to be denied the most basic rights.
A kind of New World Apartheid!
Image courtesy Gerd Altmann