As the UK moves towards the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most hotly-debated topics in business, government and amongst the general public, has been the proposed introduction of a ‘vaccine passport’.
Should they be made official, they would potentially be used to allow people to return to ‘normal’ lives without the same level of restrictions that would be applied to those who have refused to have the vaccine or are unable to prove that they have tested negative for the virus. Business Leader spoke to some industry leaders to find out whether they should be brought in, and how they would affect companies across the UK.
Although the topic of a passport has been rumoured ever since the rollout of the vaccine began, in March, debates surrounding the proposal became front page news, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated its potential introduction ‘should not be totally alien to us’.
Later that month, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden stoked the flames of the debate by insisting that they would not be a permanent measure – but could still be introduced.
Since then, there has been vociferous responses on both sides of the debate – but should businesses be encouraging their introduction?
Adapting to a new world
According to an Ipsos survey for the World Economic Forum, 78% of adult respondents, across 28 countries, believed that a version of a ‘vaccine passport’ was necessary for travel, public meetings and events.
The survey of more than 21,000 people also found that 55% believed they were needed for people entering shops, restaurants and offices, with 56% and 55% of employed people being happy with the government and their employer (respectively) having access to their personal health information.
However, only 40% of respondents were happy with private companies having access to health data and any potential vaccination record – with 53% saying they would be uncomfortable with them being able to access this level of information.
In a part of the same study, 32% said they should be introduced for a few months; another 32% said they should be in place until the end of 2021; and only 13% saying they should be permanently introduced.
With such a wide range of opinions from the public, what do business leaders think?
One of the highest profile CEOs supporting the introduction of a vaccine passport is Pimlico Plumbers Founder Charlie Mullins OBE, who said: “We all know the answer is vaccine passports, but Boris and Co can’t even say the words out loud in public. The logic is clear. If vaccines are the answer, and they are, which is why the UK has doubled down on getting the population immunised, then being able to prove you are a very low COVID-19 risk must be a good thing. Vaccine passports are the way forward, and everybody knows it.
“We may get some of our freedom back by the summer, but vaccinations and yes, passports are going to be a fact of life very soon, and it’s about time our government grew a pair and publicly accepted this fact. We need to start working on vaccine passports now, so that by the time every adult has been offered a vaccine, they can be in use. If we wait, we restrict the ability of the economy to recover and place people at greater risk.
“Those who have had a vaccine deserve to be able to benefit from playing their part in the UK’s fight back, those who are for good reason unable to have a vaccine deserve our protection also. And those who don’t give a damn, well it’s their choice – be part of the solution or stay at home. Undoubtedly, it’s time to say, we need vaccine passports, and we need them now!”
Despite the wide range of opinions towards the introduction of a COVID-19 passport, documentation to enter countries and densely populated areas isn’t uncommon.
Andrew Missingham, Co-founder of Creative Management Consultancy B+A, comments: “Yes – if you’ve ever travelled to Africa, you’ll know how common it is to insist that entrants take correct and responsible prophylaxis (for instance, having to show a valid Yellow Fever Certificate, in many countries). If countries in the developing world insist on ‘vaccine passports’, they do it not only for the protection of their populations but for the protection of the traveller, therefore the world. What’s different about us? What’s different about Covid-19?”
No matter what could be introduced by the government to help get business and people’s lives back to ‘normal’, could a vaccine passport help accelerate this?
Employment Hero CEO and Co-Founder, Ben Thompson, said: “Many businesses have now successfully adapted to remote work, which means they are less reliant on vaccine passports and travel. So, If the global workforce is to get ‘back to business’, then vaccine passports may be one of the most viable options for businesses. Additionally, if the vaccine passport incentivises more people to take the vaccine, it is doing a huge service to the business community beyond providing more freedom to vaccinated employees.”
There is no law in the UK which requires mandatory vaccination. The Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 devolves powers to Parliament to legislate in order to protect UK Citizens.
The law enables Parliament to intervene in an emergency situation, such as the pandemic, and impose lockdowns and restrictions to protect the public, but currently, it cannot impose mandatory vaccinations.
The other issue facing those pushing for the introduction is the issues that link to GDPR and data privacy laws.
Felix Marx, CEO, Trūata, said: “The introduction of vaccine passports is shining a spotlight on the core principles of data protection, those of purpose limitation, data minimisation and data retention. Data should only be used for its intended purpose; only necessary data should be collected; and, once it has served its purpose, it should no longer be retained.
“It is essential that these principles are adhered to by all types of organizations. The Italian Data Protection Authority recently issued guidance noting that vaccination data is particularly delicate, and the incorrect treatment can have very serious consequences for the fundamental rights of people.
“Businesses will need to consider the full implications of taking a stance on vaccinations, not only in terms of the infrastructure that is required but also the impact on trust and staff engagement.
“The findings of our global study highlight that there is a level of discomfort and division when it comes to offering up personal data for a vaccine passport. There is a demand for more transparency to build trust; the general public needs to understands how their data will be stored/used and how their privacy will be protected if governments intend to press ahead with COVID vaccination passports.”
Andy Webber, technical director at web and app developers AtomicMedia, agrees: “Many people are uneasy about potential privacy risks. The government would know who you are, where you’ve been, and who you’ve been in contact with. People are very privacy conscious these days, so there is a strong argument that it will infringe on people’s freedoms. Personally, I think it could set a dangerous precedent if employees have to share their medical history with employers. It is unlikely that small businesses will force people to use it, and if it is easy to circumvent, it won’t be effective.”
So, with it highly unlikely that a passport will be introduced, what can be done to satisfy everyone and help businesses return safely back to the office, and the general public back to their pre-COVID-19 lives.
Steve Witt, Co-Founder of The Travel Franchise, comments: “It’s probably more important to focus on testing. Just because someone has the vaccine, it doesn’t mean they are immune or can’t pass it on. You can still transfer it. So, making it mandatory is probably the wrong focus – it should be more on regular and accurate testing. Again, I think it’s more important to have regular tests done. We have to think about the protection for the many, so we need to follow the science and say, what is the right scientific approach to protect the most people.”
It is no secret that everyone has felt the impact of the virus, and with the roadmap and vaccine rollout in full effect, there are still some difficulties to confront in the months ahead.
And even if a vaccine passport does become a reality – such an introduction would create its own set of challenges.
Webber comments: “It should be relatively straightforward to implement from a technical perspective – but there are a lot of other factors to consider that will make or break the project, such as will people want to use it and will everyone be able to use it?
“Designing something to be used by all demographics is no mean feat, and you also need to consider how easy it would be to circumvent. It will be very difficult and expensive to make it secure. People could try to hack it either by exploiting vulnerabilities in the software or (more likely) through social engineering.
“There are also fears that the certificates would be discriminatory and divisive, creating inequality with people who have chosen not to be vaccinated. Those are just some of the issues that need to be explored and any one of them could result in the app being deemed a failure. I would urge the government to consider that if at any stage it becomes clear the project isn’t viable, then knock it on the head and have the confidence to look the public in the eye and say ‘we tried something, it didn’t work, but we didn’t spend much money on it’.”
One of the newest challenges that a proposed vaccine passport could create is a market for counterfeit paperwork.
Adam Schrader, Director of Operations at travel risk intelligence company Riskline, says: “Among the biggest issues that every government or organisation will face is counterfeit vaccine passports. These will seriously undermine the security and operational efficiency of the whole scheme unless they are tightly prevented.
“If vaccination passports are to be the key to accessing so many aspects of life when they reopen, then there is a very strong motivation for millions of people to acquire a fake passport when they haven’t yet had their jabs, either by choice or lack of opportunity. For those countries that have introduced them, a rapidly growing number of templates for fake documents are being offered on the dark web.
“What will make this easier for the criminals, and more confusing and difficult for everyone who is responsible for verifying people’s documents, is that there are far too many proposed different certificates, many of them paper or card, and no imminent signs of consolidation. Standardisation of design, like there is worldwide for identity passports, is urgently needed, along with the introduction of sophisticated anti-fraud measures in the design and manufacturing. Moving away from paper documents would make counterfeiting more difficult. I can also predict long queues at airport security as staff look carefully to detect fake documents.”
What is next?
With a mandatory vaccine passport looking unlikely – and even if it got approved, there are a lot of wider ramifications that could take a long time to iron out – many business owners will be wondering how best to proceed.
Andrew Bud, Founder & CEO, iProov, said: “The real debate has already moved on from ‘vaccine passports’ to focus on a broader and more inclusive Covid Status Credential, which includes vaccination status, results of a person’s recent tests and whether they’ve tested positive for Covid in the past.
“Creating a Covid Status Credential scheme raises social, ethical, and legal issues, and it is important that the government’s review takes full account of all of them. It’s also important that any credential checks at venues should be inclusive, convenient, secure and respect people’s privacy to sustain public confidence.
“We believe that schemes offering options for people to show their digital or paper credential and biometrically authenticate with their face, instead of presenting photo ID, will provide the best way to meet these requirements.
“How Covid Status Credential schemes are introduced and the social limits for their use are matters for public debate and for politicians to decide.
“What business leaders need to bear in mind is that, in Europe, we’re governed by the GDPR, which is one of the strictest data security regimes in the world. This means that it would be fundamentally illegal to prevent access to a service if someone doesn’t want to grant access to their sensitive medical history.
“Business leaders should be aware of the key legalities around this and ultimately must do what is in the best interests of their staff.”