Countries across Europe are eagerly awaiting the draft proposal of the EU's vaccine passport initiative, with the hope that it can signal the start of a return to normal for the continent.
The decision will, if enacted, make the EU the first supranational body to implement covid vaccine passports, with some nation-states already issuing digital certifications.
What will the proposals suggest?
Referred to as 'digital green passes' by EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen, the passports will either have information about the Covid vaccination that holders have been administered with or, failing that, evidence of their latest coronavirus test result.
Von der Leyen also confirmed that there would be information on the passports to inform people about the best steps to take when recovering from the virus.
It is, according to several news sources, too early to say whether the United Kingdom is or will be included in such plans. A Downing Street spokesperson has said the UK's Department of Transport is looking into the possibility of vaccine passports and will likely communicate with other countries and bodies.
Europe is far from united on the proposals, which have seen the bloc split down the middle. Many of the Southern European states which rely heavily on tourism and have been badly hit by the travel restrictions enforced over the past year are eager for the scheme to be enacted.
Countries like Spain, Portugal, and Greece have also seen their economies tank in the past year and further delays are making national lawmakers anxious.
Northern European states like France and Belgium are resisting the idea and worried that a vaccine – something which, despite being the key to a way out of this crisis, is entirely voluntary – will be tied to the principle of freedom of movement. This is a fundamental principle that underpins how the EU works, and some leaders fear it will be undermined by the proposed passport plans.
What have European officials say?
Belgium's Foreign Minister is one of a number of high-ranking European politicians to criticize the plans for vaccine passports on freedom of movement grounds:
Respect for the principle of non-discrimination is more fundamental than ever, since vaccination is not compulsory and access to the vaccine is not yet generalized
And despite the legislation feeling somewhat premature – the EU is lagging behind the UK in its vaccine roll-out, which has been criticized as sluggish – the commission has defended its plans.
The aim is to gradually enable people to move safely in the European Union or abroad, for work or tourism", Ms von der Leyen said, whilst an EU commission spokesperson recently labeled the sort of freedom of movement they were gunning for a 'European competence'. There's also talk of a global system being worked on:
We're of the view that in collaboration with WHO, there should be a way to scale this up globally. We work on a European solution now - this is where we start - and then anything else would need to come after
However, considering the EU's vaccine roll-out has been, by all accounts, quite slow – it's certainly been outpaced by the UK, to name one – it is still sticking to the goal of having 70% of its roughly 450 million citizens vaccinated by the end of summer.
Vaccine passports, unfortunately, come with some associated privacy concerns, most notably the worry that they will be used as another way to track the movement of citizens and compile information about their health status.
There are several unanswered questions: will the data of passport recipients be kept in a centralized database? If so, where, and how will it be secured? What sort of information will need to be kept for a vaccine passport to be valid? Will individuals be able to remove their data if they so, please? Some rights groups have already expressed their concerns:
Vaccine passports would create the backbone of an oppressive digital ID system and could easily lead to a health apartheid that's incompatible with a free and democratic country. Digital IDs would lead to sensitive records spanning medical, work, travel, and biometric data about each and every one of us being held at the fingertips of authorities and state bureaucrats
Another point is that ID should only be used where it is essential; such as driving and travel passports. We have to have some form of identification. But it's questionable whether this one is indeed essential; we're coming to the end of the pandemic, an optimistic person may argue, and we don't have passports for other diseases – so why would we for covid?
Of course, introducing a new form of ID will likely lead to a new form of ID fraud, a process that will likely constitute some sort of invasion of privacy in order to be successful. Another problem will be appeals and due process – the system will have to have some ways of challenging the result of a decision.
Responses to privacy concerns
Some people believe these concerns to be overblown. Supporters of the vaccine passports contend that you wouldn't even need a centralized database – nor would it require any personally identifiable information about those who are awarded one. It would likely run as an app similar to test & trace, for example.
What's more, they say, vaccine passports already exist; globally, health certificates have been used to ensure safe, healthy travel between countries experiencing outbreaks of disease for years. What we're actually experiencing is the first truly widespread or potentially universal use of them. The global threat of Covid-19 is likely higher than the diseases running riot in countries that already require vaccine certification as part and parcel of travel.
Even if governing bodies decide, in the end, not to implement a vaccine passport – although this looks unlikely – we may be forced into certifying our health by companies operating in the private sector, several of which have already designed, rolled-out or are planning vaccine certification for employees and customers.