A year into the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK remains in strict lockdown. Appalling damage is being done to our economy, our health and to the very fabric of our society. Our children have lost half a year’s education over the past 12 months and will likely count the cost throughout their careers. More and more of us are struggling to cope with the loneliness and hardship of being isolated from friends and family, and of being unable to work, travel or socialise as normal.
Vaccinations are the ultimate exit strategy, and the UK is making huge progress. However, we can’t afford to wait until everyone is vaccinated before we start to lift the restrictions on everyday life. Now that there is evidence to show that being vaccinated reduces the risk of transmitting the virus as well as getting sick, we should let as many people as possible start to go back to a life as normal as possible. That includes being able to travel internationally, and being able to enter settings like care homes or attend large events.
But we can’t accept a two-tier system where people who have been vaccinated have a host of freedoms not available to those who have not. To avoid any issues of discrimination between ‘jabs’ and ‘jab nots’, reopening should be available to people on the basis that they have either had the jab or had a recent test showing they do not have the virus. Experiments with reopening settings along with mass testing have shown useful results: Slovakia has piloted using mass testing to control the virus; an experiment with a music festival in Spain showed no infections when attendees were asked to take a test before entering. Combined with a digital health passport, this is the most effective way to manage risk as we begin to reopen.
This isn’t an idea to be taken lightly. Conferring different rights and restrictions on people based on their health status is no way to run a society under normal circumstances. But due to the pandemic we are already being forced to do this: Those who have tested positive or come into contact with someone who has are subject to strict isolation. And everyone else – those who don’t know their health status – is in lockdown. Meanwhile the costs pile up, and public consent and compliance are starting to wear thin.
If we accept that people should be allowed to go back to various elements of their pre-pandemic lives if they are not likely to spread the virus, then the next thing is to provide a simple, reliable way to prove this. Carrying a laminated vaccination card or taking multiple Covid-19 tests in a day are not tenable solutions in a modern society: Credentials like a vaccination card or a text showing a test result are easily faked. They can also be lost. And they aren’t sufficiently adaptable. Our understanding of questions like which vaccines give immunity to which variants, and for how long, is growing all the time. We need a way to prove health status that can keep up with the latest scientific evidence. The public is increasingly comfortable with the trade-off between protecting our civil liberties and protecting our health: In one recent study, 60 per cent of people said they would want a health passport for themselves; in another, more than two-thirds of respondents supported the use of some form of smartphone tracking app to help manage social distancing when society reopens.
All this strengthens the case for exploring a digital health passport – a CovidPass, that can be used both for international travel and for accessing certain settings domestically.
Understandably, people are worried about the idea of entrusting an app or platform with their sensitive health information. But the technology already exists to allow us to prove our health status while keeping personal data private and secure. There are many companies developing solutions designed to address these worries. Data can be stored by trusted health authorities, and on the user’s personal device, and secured using advanced technologies. For instance, Guardtime’s VaccineGuard uses blockchain technology to ensure that health records can only be accessed or updated by authorised parties.
Digital health passports have an advantage over paper credentials in that they allow the user to prove their health status without disclosing anything else – for instance Mvine and iProov’s passport doesn’t require the user to share their name or any other information with the verifier. Once the user is authenticated using a biometric record of their face, the verifier simply scans a QR code and their app confirms whether the user meets the requirements for entry. This could be done in the form of a simple tick/green light or cross/red light, or with more detailed information if required. This compares favourably to a vaccination card.
Inclusion is another crucial factor to get right: Participation in society mustn’t be limited to smartphone owners. But again, this can be achieved: Mvine doesn’t require users to have their own smartphone: The verifier (i.e., the venue that is asking the individual to prove their health status) can use their own device to take a photo and match the person up with the secure record of their test result or vaccination status held by the authority that issued the test or vaccination.
There are some very substantial policy questions to be answered. Not all solutions are equal. But with new Covid-19 variants emerging all the time, and the ever-present risk of a totally new virus, waiting until everyone is vaccinated against everything isn’t an option.
Ultimately, proving our health status is going to become a fact of life. Concerns about protecting individual liberties are absolutely reasonable. But as time goes on it is increasingly clear that there’s no going back to how society looked before the pandemic. Digital health passports aren’t about liberty for some and not for others; this is our best option to protect our overall liberty by reducing lockdowns more permanently. If designed correctly this has the potential to restore our liberty, not inhibit it.
The government can choose to lead or be led on this. It should lead, and start work on developing the fairest, safest solution: The sooner we do, the sooner we can start thinking of a better future, with summer holidays, parties, access to workplaces and more – in short, freedom – for everyone.
Our detailed analysis setting out the case for why the UK government should take the lead on implementing a digital health passport and the policy principles that should guide its development will form part of our response to the Ada Lovelace Institute’s call for public evidence.
Read "The Case for Digital Health Passports" here