Over the past few months, health passes (or Covid certificates, or health passports) have become the subject of intense debate. Critics have raised questions about both the principle and the practicalities of health passes; at the same time, polling is consistently showing that the public supports the idea, with over 60 per cent in favour. Meanwhile, the UK has begun to lift lockdown restrictions at home, and international travel is due to resume from 17 May. Now more than ever, we need a tool to help minimise transmission of the virus. To be most useful, health passes need to be quick, user-friendly and internationally interoperable.
A cautious exit from lockdown
One focus of debate about health passes has been around timing, with some commentators arguing that such a policy shouldn’t be rushed; and others that it may take too long to develop to be useful. Both are true. Great progress is being made towards vaccinating the UK’s population, with 60 per cent of adults having received their first dose. However, as a planet we are a long way from being out of the woods, and new variants continue to emerge. At any point, a variant that is much more transmissible or much more deadly could arise. The NHS will need to keep track of who has had which vaccine in order to protect individuals’ health for the foreseeable future. Moreover, data shows that as lockdown measures are eased and there is increasing contact between people, a third wave is highly likely.
There is therefore both an urgent need for a health pass to be brought in rapidly as an emergency measure to help manage the easing of lockdown, and for careful, consultative policy and legislative work to set the right framework for proof of health status as a long term feature of public life. The government is right to be pushing ahead with pilots of mass events using health passes from this week; it should accelerate this work, and commit the necessary resource to rolling out a short-term, time-limited solution in the next few weeks rather than months. At the same time, it should continue detailed consultation and policy work to establish the conditions under which health passes could operate fairly and efficiently to help manage new variants or new viruses in the years to come.
Another common concern has been the risk of unfairness between those who have been vaccinated and those who haven’t. The way to address this is to make sure that a recent negative test confers the same status as a vaccination. With rapid lateral flow testing now available on demand in England, people can easily check and update their health status. To make this as frictionless as possible, the government should explore technologies such as Excalibur’s and Certific, which allow users to validate and upload the results of tests taken at home, as well as at testing sites.
It’s not only a question of keeping an accurate record of which individuals have had which vaccine. In the absence of sufficient vaccine supplies, people could be exposed to fake vaccines, with disastrous consequences. In countries where healthcare providers and regulators are less well established, using similar technology to provide a unique identifier for each dose of the vaccine could reassure people that they are receiving a bona fide product and limit the black market.
It’s also essential that the UK and other national governments design their domestic health pass systems in such a way as to be able to interoperate internationally, without the need for any additional bureaucracy. Rapid agreement is needed on a comprehensive set of governance and technical standards so that border authorities can quickly verify travellers’ health status. If not, bottlenecks will arise and airports could quickly be overwhelmed as passenger numbers increase.
This is a massive undertaking in terms of the breadth and detail of the standards needed and the complexity involved in bringing together all the relevant government and industry organisations. Luckily, several initiatives are already underway. Notably, the WHO, the Vaccination Credential Initiative and the Good Health Pass Collaborative are all working to develop principles and guidelines to set the terms for an internationally recognised system of health passes. Meanwhile, IATA and CommonPass are developing technical solutions. At the same time, the EU has just agreed to develop its own “Green Pass” – although this will not be intended for use as a travel document.
Although worthwhile, none of these projects can solve the issue without the support of national governments. A significant investment of political capital, and close coordination are needed – the UK’s G7 presidency provides the ideal opportunity to bring a foundation group of nations together to drive this.
Far from taking its foot off the gas, the government should redouble its efforts to deliver a rapid, effective health pass for use within the UK, and show leadership in helping get this technology in place internationally.