Vaccine passports and you

Image Credit: Nurina Iman Nizam

Anna Blackburn discusses the history of vaccine passports and why many countries are beginning to consider them essential for safe travel and tourism.

It has been a long time since most people have left their country of residence or even their 5km, and unfortunately, the wait is not yet over. With the limited number of vaccinations across the EU and globally, local and international travel restrictions persist. However, officials in Europe are proposing the implementation of a ‘vaccine passport’ to international travel requirements as a means of alleviating these restrictions somewhat. As a result, there may yet be a chance to travel abroad this summer.

The vaccine passport would allow for a gradual reopening of tourist opportunities to help European economies get back on their feet. Tourism in Europe is a hundred billion euro industry, bringing in over €750 million annually and funding more than 14 million jobs. With the pandemic at large over the last year, these numbers have fallen drastically, and the possibility of vaccine passports offers a way to start rebuilding these industries. 

What is a vaccine passport? It is proof that an individual has received the full dose of a COVID-19 vaccination, whether that be the Pfizer, BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, or the recently approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine. It would also likely include other necessary medical information, such as recent Covid test results and any possible underlying health conditions. Many private companies are in the process of developing mobile apps, such as the CommonPass, IATA Travel Pass, and the IBM Digital Health Pass. As well as these, EU President Ursula von der Leyen said that the EU would propose their own ‘Digital Green Pass’ next month. These digital health passport applications aim to make country-specific vaccination documents, which would have been previously distributed as paper certificates, more easily accessible and internationally recognized. 

The vaccine passport would give Europeans the opportunity to travel this summer, but there is much debate surrounding the viability of this plan. Many people are raising questions about ethical concerns, specifically regarding individual rights such as the privacy and freedom of choice involved in making this documentation a requirement of international travel. Several airlines have already begun the process of checking passengers for proof of vaccination or Covid-19. Emirates (an airline group based in the United Arab Emirates) was the first to introduce rapid blood testing for Covid-19 prior to allowing passengers to board flights. Qantas Airways in Australia has said they plan to start requiring proof of vaccination as a prerequisite for flying with the company. While these airlines, as privately-owned companies, have the right to practice these safety measures, many feel that it is infringing upon their individual rights, just as the vaccine passports would.

What most people don’t know is that vaccine passports are not a new idea. The standard passports we use today became a requirement of international travel during the First World War as a way to protect countries’ borders. With the Spanish Flu pandemic raging across Europe, governments realised that the passport was not enough to keep people safe. As a result, the League of Nations added health requirements to international travel in 1925, stating that transport should “be carried out in the conditions most favourable to public health”. Vaccination requirements have been in place for many years. Countries around the world require vaccinations for diseases such as Malaria, Polio, Yellow Fever, Rabies and even Measles on arrival.

As globalisation continues to expand, countries have not only the right but the responsibility to protect their citizens. The Covid-19 pandemic has had long-lasting effects on everything in our lives, from major widespread economic declines to individual mental health. The vaccine, and furthermore the vaccine passport, is a way of protecting citizens from imported diseases. As we have seen over the past year, increased international mobility helps viruses spread and mutate at an alarming rate, something which no one wants to experience again. 

countries have not only the right but the responsibility to protect their citizens

It’s true, no one can force you to be vaccinated for the Coronavirus. It is an individual right whether or not you choose to get the vaccine. Though, it seems that the likelihood of vaccine passports being incorporated into travel is only going to continue increasing. Many government officials are still hesitant to approve this proposal due to a lack of information on new variants, like the UK's B117 variant, and concern regarding whether or not vaccinated people could still carry and spread the virus. These scientific blind-spots and ethical concerns are slowing the implementation of vaccine passports, but many officials still see them as essential for safe tourism.

So if travelling abroad this summer is something you intend on doing, you will need to check your destination country’s vaccination requirements. The World Health Organization website has a list of every country’s required vaccinations upon entry. The purpose of vaccinations is to prevent the spread of deadly diseases like the Coronavirus and the vaccine passport is a way of ensuring that you are not at risk or pose a risk to others when travelling to other countries. Covid-19 is not going away anytime soon. 

Travel during Summer 2021 seems very likely to be reliant on the Covid-19 vaccine passport in order to prevent another global outbreak of the virus and keep people safe. And while they are still reluctant to do so at the moment, government officials must favour the collective over the individual to prevent a pandemic of this size and devastation from happening again.