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Covid vaccine passports: What are they, and how do you get one in the UK?

The Independent logo The Independent 17/03/2021 Simon Calder
a close up of a bottle © Provided by The Independent

Travel within the UK and internationally for leisure purposes is illegal at present under the rules of lockdown. But the UK is well ahead of other major European nations in its vaccination programme to protect against coronavirus, with more than 22 million citizens having had their first dose.

Many prospective travellers are likely to have obtained both jabs by the time international journeys become feasible once more – which, for residents in England, will not be before 17 May.

They could find themselves at an advantage. Increasingly many countries are introducing policies that give more freedom to vaccinated travellers. But the crucial issue is proof.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, has promised to present later in March “a legislative proposal for a Digital Green Pass”.

The aim is to provide proof that a person has been vaccinated, or the results of tests for people who have yet to get a vaccine, or information on Covid-19 recovery.

“It will respect data protection, security and privacy,” Ms von der Leyen said.

But many countries and travel operators are creating their own versions.

What is a ‘vaccine passport’?

The widest interpretation is a document that will allow you extra freedom: to get you in to a footbll match at Old Trafford in Manchester, or a gig at the O2 in London, or even make the difference between getting a job or being unemployed.

For the purposes of this article, though, the definition is: evidence of your Covid vaccination status in a form that will be accepted by your destination country or region to remove or reduce barriers to travel.

The spectrum extends from a simple self-declaration of having had both Covid vaccines to a detailed certificate signed by a clinician disclosing full details of the vaccines used, including the manufacturer, the batch number and the medical organisation that stands behind it.

While the immunity conferred as a result of your own vaccination does not give total protection, nor prevent you passing on the virus, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said on 1 March: “The protection that you get from catching Covid, 35 days after a first jab, is even slightly better for the Oxford jab than for Pfizer, albeit both results are clearly very strong.”

An increasing number of countries say they will welcome in travellers who have been immunised. Several nations in eastern Europe are leading the way with new policies.

Estonia and Romania offer quarantine exemption for travellers who have had Covid-19 in the past few months or been vaccinated against the virus, while Cyprus says it will accept vaccinated travellers without testing restrictions from 1 May.

As proof, such travellers will need to provide a vaccine passport acceptable to the host country.

Where do I get one?

That is the big problem facing travellers. There is no international agreement on such a document. Instead, a range of participants are coming up with options that they hope will be more widely adopted.

At the root of all this uncertainty is the problem of keeping personal health information confidential while at the same time sharing essential details with the authorities who demand evidence of an individual’s suitability to travel.

But the UK vaccines minister,  Nadhim Zahawi, said: “If other countries will require a vaccine certificate then I think it’s right that we facilitate it.”

Until there is a national scheme, anyone who has been vaccinated and needs to prove it in order to facilitate entry into another country, was advised by Mr Zahawi to ask their GP.

In response, one Glasgow doctor said: "As a GP I would say we’d definitely not be delighted. Far too many GANFYD ["Get A Note From Your Doctor"] already without adding this to the pile."

Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs and a GP in East London, said: “We would need a lot more clarification on how the proposed system for other countries would work. The college has had no discussions as yet on the role of GPs in providing proof of vaccination for purposes of travel.

“GPs are working really hard to get as many patients as possible vaccinated as safely and speedily as possible. We cannot allow administration to get in their way.”

Meanwhile airlines – and frustrated travellers – are keen on an internationally agreed solution.

What are the choices?

The European “Digital Green Pass” appears to be a different concept from the others that have been proposed over recent months.

The Travel Pass initiative from the International Air Transport Association (Iata) is probably the most prominent proposal. It is an app-based system that incorporates layers of information.

At the most basic level, it aims to help passengers find accurate information on testing and vaccine requirements for their journey. This taps into Iata’s “Timatic” database which is used by airlines worldwide; if someone is refused boarding at an airport, it may be because Timatic says the passenger is non-compliant with the prevailing rules.

Conversely, if your app says you comply, then the airline should agree. It also provides details on testing centres and labs at your departure location which meet the standards for testing/vaccination required by your destination.

But the real benefit, claims Iata, is that it enables laboratories and test centres to send test results or vaccination certificates to passengers in a format that is secure – as well as allowing authorities to assess your compliance with the rules.

Singapore Airlines says it will be the world’s first airline to pilot the Travel Pass mobile app for digital health verification – starting with passengers travelling from Singapore to London Heathrow from 15 to 28 March 2021.

But it will not provide sufficient proof on its own of a negative test to comply with UK border rules. The airline says: “They will also need to bring a physical copy of their health certificate that is issued by the clinic where they took their Covid-19 test.”

Other airlines including Air New Zealand, Copa of Panama and RwandAir have signed up for trials of IATA’s Travel Pass.

And the others?


Video: What are the plans for Covid vaccine passports? (PA Media)

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Rival systems are largely aiming in the same direction: a simple yet secure system that can help travellers navigate through a tangle of restrictions as smoothly as possible while protecting privacy.

“Share your current health status so you can safely return to travel and life” – that is the claim made for CommonPass, a collaboration between The Commons Project (a Swiss not-for-profit builder of digital platforms for communities), the World Economic Forum and others.

The proposition: “CommonPass delivers a simple yes/no answer as to whether the individual meets the current entry criteria, but the underlying health information stays in the individual’s control.”

AOKpass focuses squarely on getting your medical records into a form where they can be securely and reliably scrutinised only by the appropriate authorities. For example, Etihad is trialling the AOKpass on flights between Abu Dhabi and Paris, while the Spanish city of Girona is using the concept to digitise Covid test results in a bid to reopen its economy.

A similar concept is offered by VeriFLY, which promises “a faster return to safe, in-person experiences”. It is being trialled by British Airways on routes from London to the US.

Meanwhile the standard NHS Digital App – not the Covid-19 App – should contain details of your coronavirus vaccinations, though not with key details: the vaccine type and the batch number.

graphical user interface, text, application: NHS © Provided by The Independent NHS

Professor Marshall of the Royal College of GPs said: "We are making regular representations to NHS Digital to improve the recording of vaccines on GP patient records and would expect to be involved in any new policy that has an impact on GP workload at a hugely busy time for general practice."

Will I need all these different versions to travel?

Almost certainly not. While the world is sorting out some common international standard, akin to the yellow fever vaccination certificates that are still mandatory in many places, there is likely to be flexibility in the proof that is required.

The vaccine passport options are being offered by countries and companies that want your business, and they do not wish to make demands that are unduly onerous.

Meanwhile, in a bid to help manage the mushrooming range of products, the aviation technology giant Sita has come up with a concept called Health Protect.

The idea is to provide an interface that can integrate certification systems such as AOKpass with existing airline, airport, and government processes, bridging the gap between these schemes and aviation and border processes.

Sita says: “It enables authorities to make an informed decision whether a passenger can travel at the point of check-in, improving the safety of all passengers and avoiding costly return flights.

“Passengers without the required documentation, or considered high risk, will be unable to check in for their flight, ensuring they do not travel to the airport.”

In other words: you could fall at the first hurdle if your personal details do not qualify.

What other countries could be open to me?

Iceland waives entry restrictions for arrivals who have a PCR positive test result showing an infection from which they have recovered, and also allows people who can provide medically certified proof of vaccination with Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca doses completed within specified time frames.

The country of Georgia has lifted all restrictions for foreign visitors who arrive by air and can provide evidence of completing a two-dose course of any Covid-19 vaccine – including China’s Sinopharm and Russia’s Sputnik V.

Travellers who are allowed to enter Poland – which, given the restrictions in place, is a fairly short list – can avoid the need for a Covid-19 test if they can produce a certificate of vaccination.

Somewhere warmer?

The US island state of Hawaii has adopted a twin-track approach. Its reopening strategy is based on protecting its most vulnerable people, and gradually opening up once this is achieved – probably in late April or May. Initially arrivals who have been vaccinated will be given favourable terms.

Other countries are less impressed with vaccinated visitors.

The government in Barbados says: “Persons who have been vaccinated are asked to bring their vaccine documentation with them.” But it stresses you should expect no special treatment as a result: “Being vaccinated does not change entry requirements or restrictions in place.”

The Seychelles is going one step further. The Indian Ocean archipelago plans to have immunised itself against tourists by 25 March, whereupon it will reopen to tourists from all over the world – except South Africa.

Will I still need to be tested before departure?

Quite possibly: many countries are likely to insist in a "belt and braces" approach. But some may become more lenient if the coronavirus crisis diminishes, and – for example – allow lateral flow tests as an alternative to expensive and onerous PCR tests.

Clearly you will also need to comply with whatever rules are in place on your return to the UK, from test-before-departure to quarantine – possibly in a hotel.

Does being vaccinated excuse me from quarantine on the way back into the UK?

At present, absolutely not. Were it to become clear that being vaccinated sharply reduced the danger that travellers posed, a risk-based approach would indicate that jabs should count for something. But a "fast track" system that divided the jabbed and the jabbed-nots would prove extremely contentious.

What about companies insisting on vaccination?

That practice looks certain to grow. Already Saga has said that when its cruises resume on 4 May, anyone wanting to sail on its ships must have both coronavirus vaccinations. But the crew will not be required to be vaccinated. Instead they will undergo onboard quarantine and testing to try to ensure that they present no risk.

The boss of Qantas, Alan Joyce, has repeatedly said that vaccination will probably be required for passengers on international flights to and from Australia.

Finnair's chief executive, Topi Manner, said: “Common standards for testing will be important globally; vaccination certificates will be very important enablers for travelling."

Where does that leave travellers who can’t or won’t have the jab?

At this stage no one really knows. Some people are medically unable to be vaccinated, while others may have beliefs that are incompatible with getting a Covid jab.

It is possible that if only a small number of people are involved, then a system of tests could meet the company’s or country’s criteria.

While the travel industry, and holidaymakers, come to terms with the new world, it is likely that a number of people will be disadvantaged by the “jab and go” principle first espoused by Ryanair in its now-banned New Year advertising campaign.

Families, too, are likely to be in a difficult position, if one or both parents have been vaccinated but their children have not.

I am comfortable with the idea that fellow passengers are vaccinated. What about staff?

This is another legal and moral minefield. It is entirely likely that airlines, cruise lines, hotels and other enterprises will ask their staff to be vaccinated when the appropriate time comes. It will help minimise the risk to colleagues and customers.

Under employment legislation, firms may not force their employees to share sensitive health information with them. It is unlikely that they would be able to say, “have the jab or go”. But they may legally be able to move such staff to backroom roles on the grounds of their duty of care towards customers.

People have been getting yellow fever vaccinations – and certificates – for decades. Why can't that system be used for coronavirus?

International certification for yellow fever is long established; you get a little booklet with a stamp saying what you've had and when.

But the two threats are by no means analogous. Yellow fever is a very nasty mosquito borne disease, generally found in the tropics: northern South America and the mid-latitudes of Africa. It has a high mortality rate. 

Covid-19, as we know, is worldwide, with a low mortality rate – especially for younger people.

The very small minority of travellers who visit areas in which yellow fever vaccine is mandatory will, one hopes, consult a travel health specialist well in advance to get all the required jabs to keep them safe. Jabs against diphtheria, hepatitis and yellow fever will routinely be given to protect the traveller.

But while yellow fever vaccine is in plentiful supply, the coronavirus vaccine is in extremely short supply relative to demand.

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