The vaccine passport debate is heating up, but don't expect a quick result
Could vaccine passports reopen the prospect of summer travel?
A small but growing number of countries now allow vaccinated travellers to bypass quarantine, and the EU has begun discussing a ‘Digital Green Pass’ to help people travel safely again after they are vaccinated.
What is the ‘Digital Green Pass’?
Following discussions with EU leaders, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen this week said a legislative proposal for a Digital Green Pass will be presented this month.
Such a smartphone app or certificate would provide proof of vaccination, results of tests for those who haven’t been vaccinated yet, and note whether they had Covid-19 in the past.
“The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad, for work or tourism,” Ms Von der Leyen said.
When will this happen?
The EC has mentioned a timeframe of at least three months, but it's far from a done deal. Countries are divided on the issue and, as we saw with last year's traffic light systems, common policies can take months to agree on. That's not even starting on data protection, security and privacy issues.
Apps like VeriFLY, CommonPass and IATA’s Travel Pass have been piloted with airlines, but agreeing on an EU standard and having members co-ordinate travel rules won’t be straightforward.
So summer holidays are still a non-starter?
That’s likely, for many reasons. To restart travel based on vaccine passports, sufficient numbers of people would have to be vaccinated. Covid-19 infection rates and hospitalisation numbers would also need to be reliably low before Government and public health experts would consider switching gears from restricting and penalising inbound and outbound travel to starting it up again.
It seems unlikely that would happen by June or July, but if most adults in Ireland are vaccinated by September, we may not have to rule out overseas travel for all of 2021. It's possible that a combination of vaccination certs, testing regimes and restrictions could coexist for many months.
Are any countries using health apps or vaccine passports?
Several countries, including Romania, Poland and Iceland, already allow vaccinated travellers to avoid quarantine, while others like Israel, Greece and Cyprus are looking to recognise each others' vaccine passports to create tourism corridors. The UK is also looking at various proposals.
What are the arguments for and against vaccine passports?
Vaccine passports would facilitate safe travel with simple-to-use apps, the argument goes. This would help begin to reboot tourism and connectivity, as well as allowing those who are vaccinated to begin to see friends and family and resume something approaching normal life.
Others suggest that allowing vaccinated people more freedom could be divisive, and be unfair on people who have not been innoculated, or who live in countries where vaccine roll-out is slower. And why stop at travel? Would the same happen for sporting events, offices or restaurants?
The Commission said it would seek to avoid discrimination against citizens who have not received a vaccine, but it is not clear how exactly it would achieve this.
There’s also the question as to whether vaccinations prevent transmission of Covid-19. If they do, the pressure to introduce passports is likely to heat up.
What will Ireland do?
While Govenment is engaging in EU discussions, the approach is ‘wait-and-see’ for now.
“It is not yet understood whether available vaccines prevent vaccinated persons from being infected or transmitting the disease to others,” the Department of Health has said. “As such, the impact vaccinations will have on travel policies internationally is yet to be determined.”
“It is something that requires consideration," Deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn added this week. “We will engage with colleagues about it in the coming weeks.”