A Covid Healthpass is key for a Return to Normality
After more than a year with Covid-19, much hope rests on the final assessments of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccines by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which are on track to be made by the end of December. While EMA’s approval would enable the rapid distribution of vaccines doses across the EU in what is a true light at the end of the tunnel, it will also intensify a closely related debate about the use of “immunity” or “health passports”.
Subject to intense debate and featuring high on the policy agenda, EU countries nonetheless remain skeptical about the concept, first and foremost Germany’s Ethics Council, which has perhaps been the most vocal in its opposition. In September, the body advised against the use of immunity passports for the moment, citing privacy concerns and whether immunity can be verified reliably.
Britain’s health pass moves
While EU countries thus remain on the fence about its introduction, it’s the UK that’s proving particularly keen to push ahead with the scheme. As per Britain’s newly appointed health minister Nadhim Zahawi, individuals who refuse to be vaccinated may ultimately be turned away from hospitality or sports venues as the economy gradually re-opens: “We are looking at the technology,” Zahawi told reporters last month, “You’ll probably find that restaurants and bars and cinemas…will probably also use that system, as they have done with the [test and trace] app.”
Despite Zahawi’s statements, No. 10 is insisting immunity passports aren’t actually on the table, at least for the time being. Indeed, pressure from the science community in favour of health passes is mounting, not least on ethical grounds. According to Prof Julian Savulescu of Oxford University, “It is unethical NOT to offer immunity passports. The sole ground for restricting liberty in a liberal society is when a person represents a threat to others. That is the justification for quarantine, isolation and lockdown. But if immunity reduces transmission, those with immunity represent NO threat to others.”
However, health pass supporters still face the issue of making them broadly available, secure and easy to use in order to support their broad use among populations. “So-called ‘vaccine passports’ could be issued by pharmacists providing the Covid jab”, argues Prof Gino Martini, Chief Scientist at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. “It’s important secure technology is used so passports can’t be forged if you haven’t had the jab, but ideally you’d be able to access it via your mobile phone.”
A matter of technology
Yet if full implementation – in the UK or the EU – of a health passport scheme is merely a question of technology, then a number of promising high-tech solutions already exist. One such tool, Certus myHealth Pass by Swiss traceability solutions provider SICPA, has been designed to contain the spread of Covid-19 in partnership with national governments, local authorities, and private sector bodies. Based on blockchain, the system allows a QR-code to be attached to digital or physical documents, thereby enabling immediate verification of information with no risk to individuals’ private data.
The technology is already applied in France, where the French government is using it as part of a Defence Ministry strategy to combat Covid-19, and aims to allow individuals who have had an approved virus or antibody detection test to demonstrate the results of that test in a universally verified format that cannot be falsified. As such, a health pass with adequate technical safeguards could prove vital for broad deconfinement across the EU and aid in economic recovery.
It’s no coincidence that the private sector is most vocal about the introduction of a health pass, considering how it would greatly support a return to normality. Particularly airlines and the travel industry are desperate to return to business following the havoc the pandemic has wreaked upon them. Airlines are looking to the first trials of a digital health pass, one certifying airline passengers as testing negative for Covid, to revive international travel flows after nearly nine months of restrictions.
The path to normality
Yet the benefits of a health pass go beyond the immediate economic effects, for the adoption of a decentralized system could also become a boon to fighting the pandemic itself. While the guarantee that personal data will remain private would help increase public acceptance, experts argue that the pass could be a much more effective means to incentivize vaccinations across the UK and EU, and ultimately achieve that long-sought after herd immunity, than enforced vaccinations. Countries like France, for example, suffer from an extraordinary low vaccine confidence, complicating Paris’ attempt to ride roughshod over their already exhausted and anxious populations.
EU governments should therefore keep a careful eye on Britain as the country that’s currently closest to taking concrete steps on rolling out a vaccine and possibly an immunity pass as well. After all, when it comes to the planned roll-out of the highly anticipated Covid-19 vaccination across the EU, a reliable health pass is the carrot that policymakers desperately need to turn this pandemic on its head and pave the way to normality.
Image: Jernej Furman/Flickr