Vaccine passports: what are they, how would they work – and could Covid certificates be introduced in Scotland?

Nicola Sturgeon has said she would ‘never support something that deepens social inequalities’, but said people needed to keep an open mind to the possibility

Wednesday, 24th February 2021, 3:29 pm

Deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam has said the Government is looking at the issue of vaccine passports, as debate over the controversial issues continues. but he thinks there are “plausible arguments for and plausible arguments against”.

Prof Van-Tam told ITV’s Good Morning Britain it is not appropriate for him to give his personal views, but said he thinks there are “plausible arguments for and plausible arguments against”, adding that we have “never lived in a society here, where we force medical treatments upon people”.

But just how would a vaccine passport work, and will they ever actually be introduced in England?

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Nicola Sturegon has said people need to keep an open mind to the possibility of vaccine passports (Photo: Shutterstock)
Nicola Sturegon has said people need to keep an open mind to the possibility of vaccine passports (Photo: Shutterstock)

Here is everything you need to know.

How would vaccine passports work?

Health or vaccine passports would allow users to ‘prove’ their immunity, and could grant them safe access to theatres, stadiums or hospitality venues in the future, either through physical documentation or an app on a mobile device.

In England, the NHS app could be used to display vaccination status or latest coronavirus test results, with customers required to by venue owners able to use the NHS Covid-19 app to prove that they have either received a jab or a recent negative test, and therefore be granted entry.

Even if the UK decides against vaccine passports for travel, other countries could still require them (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In January, biometrics firm iProov and cybersecurity firm Mvine announced they had developed a digital passport that could allow the NHS to keep a better track of the number of people who have received first or second doses of the vaccine.

Why are they controversial?

The idea of issuing a vaccine passport or health certificate for those who have been inoculated against Covid-19 and therefore retain the antibodies required to stave off future infections has proven controversial.

Those who oppose the idea say that such a move would have vast ethical implications, and may interfere with several fundamental rights, including the right to privacy, the freedoms of movement and peaceful assembly.

Digital passports would also impact equality and non-discrimination, with those unable access or afford Covid-19 tests and vaccines not be able to prove their health status, thus having their freedoms de facto restricted.

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A report published by the University of Exeter in December said digital passports “build on sensitive personal health information to create a new distinction between individuals based on their health status, which can then be used to determine the degree of freedoms and rights individuals may enjoy.

"Deploying digital health passports could further deepen the existing inequalities in society,” the report added.

Then there is the safety side of it; Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said in December that he was “nervous” about talk of immunity passports, as “putting personal information on to large databases has risks to privacy and the possibility of fraud hacking and theft.”

What have political leaders said?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has acknowledged that “fervent libertarians” will reject the idea, but said others will “think there’s a case for it”.

Johnson said there may be medical reasons why people cannot be vaccinated, and said, “we can’t be discriminatory against people who for whatever reason can’t have the vaccine.”

But Johnson has also announced that Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove would head up the review as the Prime Minister acknowledged the “deep and complex issues” surrounding the introduction of Covid-19 status certificates.

Gove has been tasked with leading a review into the possible use of vaccine passports as part of the road map for releasing England’s coronavirus lockdown – in December, the minister said the UK Government would not require people to carry identification to prove they had been vaccinated.

In January, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said there were “no plans” to introduce vaccine passports, as it was “unclear” at that stage “whether vaccines will prevent transmission.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament that she would “never support something that deepens social inequalities” or “took away people’s civil liberties” based on their medical history, but said people needed to keep an open mind to the possibility of vaccine passports as she set out her plans for easing Scotland’s lockdown.

Will they become a reality?

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has suggested he would accept a vaccine passport to get back into theatres, restaurants and cinemas, telling LBC he would “probably do pretty much sort of anything” to be able to enjoy “all those lovely things”.

Asked if the passports will become a reality, he said: “Michael Gove is being charged with actually looking at this.

"There are many challenges with this and it’s really important to look right across the spectrum, at both the benefits it would bring but also some of the challenges it could bring.”

Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, has said that even if the UK decides against rolling out vaccine passports, people may still need them to travel to other parts of the world.

He told the Science and Technology Committee: "It’s almost inevitable that countries outside the UK - independent on what the UK decides about vaccine passports… [will decide that people] need to have some vaccination certificates to actually be able to travel to some parts of the world that they want to go to.”