Will vaccine passports open up our holidays?


We could soon have to travel with not one but two passports. One to prove our identity, and another to prove we have been vaccinated against Covid-19.

The idea of ‘vaccine passports’ has been embraced by some countries, like Cyprus, keen to welcome back holidaymakers and business travellers as soon as possible. Yesterday, the Greek Prime Minister also called for standardised EU vaccine certification to reboot travel.

But there are mounting concerns and questions about privacy, the feasibility of international coordination, and whether such a programme would be discriminatory against those who have not been vaccinated.

Here we take a deep dive into how a vaccine passport might open up our holidays, once we’re out of lockdown and countries begin to reopen their borders.

Which countries might accept vaccine passports?

A number of countries say they are open to the idea of a ‘vaccine passport’ replacing the need for a negative Covid-19 test certificate on entry.

In December, Cyprus became the first country to say it would waive Covid testing requirements for visitors who have been vaccinated against the virus, according to a Government plan that will come into effect in March 2021.

“The amended action plan is expected to further boost the interest of airline companies to carry out additional flights to Cyprus, improve connectivity and increase passenger traffic,” said Transport Minister Yiannis Karousos.

Iceland has not made an announcement regarding vaccination certificates for arrivals, but the country has already dropped its quarantine restrictions for arrivals who can prove they have had Covid-19; if you land with an antibody test that is no more than 14 days old, you are free to explore. It is possible that, at some point in the future, proof of vaccination would negate the need to take an antibody test. Everyone else arriving in Iceland can currently take a test at the border and a second test after five days, to leave isolation.

The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has also thrown his weight behind the idea of a coordinated, EU-wide vaccine passport scheme. Yesterday, he said it was “urgent to adopt a common understanding on how a vaccination certificate should be structured so as to be accepted in all Member States.”

Hungary has also said it could require visitors to show proof of vaccination to enter. “The need for citizens to provide proof that they have gained protection against the coronavirus is increasing all over the world,” a government spokesperson said.

Are airlines preparing for vaccine passports?

A number of airlines have taken steps to develop their own health passport systems, ready to be rolled out once vaccination becomes a requirement for entry. United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Swiss International AirLines, and JetBlue, have all said they would begin offering a health passport system to customers this year. BA-owner IAG is also working on its own healthpass that’s due to launch early this year.​

Ryanair has sent mixed messages, when it comes to its stance on how the vaccine might reboot travel in 2021. When questioned about the matter on BBC’s Today programme back in November, Ryanair’s CEO, Michael O’Leary, stated: “You will not require vaccines to travel on short-haul flights between Ireland and the UK or between the UK and Spain, Portugal or Greece next year”. Yet, one month later, the low-cost airline released an advert encouraging customers to ‘Jab and Go’, which is now being investigated by the Advertising Standards Agency.

The chief executive of Australian airline Qantas, Alan Joyce, has thrown his support behind the idea. In November last year, he said: “We will ask people to have a vaccination before they can get on the aircraft… for international visitors coming out and people leaving the country we think that’s a necessity.”

Joyce said passengers could carry an electronic version of a “vaccination passport” that certifies it is acceptable for the final destination country.

What if I am not due a vaccine until later in the year?

As it stands, the UK Government is prioritising vaccination of the vulnerable and elderly. The current forecast puts autumn 2021 as the date when all adults in the UK have received a vaccine. Tens of millions of people will be immunised by spring at over 2,700 vaccination sites across the UK, the Government  announced on Jan 11, as part of comprehensive plans to rapidly scale up the Covid-19 vaccination programme.

It is possible that, were countries to accept vaccine certification from arrivals, those who were not yet eligible for a vaccine could present a negative PCR Covid-19 test to avoid a quarantine on arrival – as is the requirement in many countries right now, including, as of Friday, the UK.

Can I pay to get a vaccine?

Not in the UK. The Government website says: “The COVID-19 vaccination is only available through the NHS to eligible groups and it is a free vaccination.”

However, it is possible to pay for a vaccine overseas. A £25,000-a-year UK private concierge service ‘The Knightsbridge Circle’ has exclusively revealed that it is flying its members to the UAE and India to receive vaccinations. Around 40 per cent of the company’s members are UK based, but many hold multiple passports and have several homes around the globe.

The Knightsbridge Circle is offering vaccination services overseas, including in Dubai

The Knightsbridge Circle is offering vaccination services overseas, including in Dubai

Credit: Getty

“It’s very exciting to say that we can offer the vaccine now,” says founder Stuart McNeil. “We’ve been proactive in offering it to all of our existing members.”

What might the passport look like?

It is possible the passport will be biometric. Yesterday, The Telegraph reported that thousands of Britons who have received their coronavirus vaccine are set to be offered a health passport as part of a government-funded trial taking place this month.

The passport, created by biometrics firm iProov and cybersecurity firm Mvine, will be issued in the form of a free app allowing users to digitally prove if they have received the vaccine. The trial will be overseen by two directors of public health in local authorities and will be complete in March. However, the locations have yet to be agreed, and it is not being rolled out with the view of kickstarting international travel.

Coordinated international efforts to create a biometric vaccine passport system are also underway. The World Economic Forum is developing a CommonPass system with the help of executives and officials from 52 countries, including three from Britain. The federation expects the app, which would develop a QR code that could be scanned by authorities, to roll out within the first half of next year.

Is it fair to demand everyone gets a vaccine passport?

Not everybody is behind the idea of a vaccination passport being made mandatory for international holidays. Gloria Guevara, president and chief executive of the World Travel and Tourism Council, said: “We should never require the vaccination to get a job or to travel. I totally disagree with the approach from Qantas. If you require the vaccination before travel, that takes us to discrimination.”

A 2020 report by the Ada Lovelace Institute, an independent research body, echoes Guevara’s sentiments, stating that the introduction of vaccine passports could “pose extremely high risks in terms of social cohesion, discrimination, exclusion and vulnerability.”

Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy the PC Agency, warned of a situation where a privileged few are able to access countries: “Governments have a duty to protect health but also to get the world moving economically. Vaccine passports will initially only be held by the minority. We cannot have a situation where only the privileged few are able to access countries. 

“Governments need to coordinate their actions and create an open, consistent approach for anyone who wants to travel. Otherwise we could see numbers restricted for years, until every country has rolled out major vaccination programmes. Testing everyone on departure is the only solution to freeing-up travel and tourism.”

There are also questions regarding data privacy and human rights. Anna Beduschi, an academic from Exeter University, said the introduction of vaccine passports “poses essential questions for the protection of data privacy and human rights.”

She said passports could “create a new distinction between individuals based on their health status, which can then be used to determine the degree of freedoms and rights they may enjoy.”

Human rights advocacy group Liberty said the plans “raise more questions than they answer” and “could pave the way for a national ID system”.

So will I, or will I not, have to get a vaccine passport to go on my next holiday?

Responding to The Telegraph’s exclusive on a vaccine passport trial in the UK, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said that despite the trial there were “no plans” to introduce mandatory vaccine passports for the population.

However, to date, the Government has contradicted itself on the use of vaccine passports. In December, Michael Gove said that they were “not the plan” but Nadhim Zahawi, the minister overseeing the rollout of the vaccine, said they were “looking at the technology”. 

Would you be happy to receive a ‘vaccine passport’ after receiving your jab, if it means you could go on holiday? Comment below to join the conversation.

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