There has been renewed interest in a so-called ‘vaccine passport’ in recent weeks, accompanied by some confusion by what the term means, and how the technology could help Australia return to some normalcy.
The uncertainty stems from both fuzzy terminology and a growing fear that we could have a ‘two-tier’ system of vaccine privilege or unvaccinated punishment - something that has already occurred overseas.
We should start with some concepts –
- Whether you have been jabbed or not is your vaccine status.
- If you have proof, this is a vaccine certificate.
- If the vaccine digital record system is linked to an identity verification system and a digital display (such as an application on a phone), it is a digital vaccine certificate – and Australia already has these.
The term ‘vaccine passport’ (or vaccine pass) is being broadly used around the world for each of these concepts, but it usually describes a permissions system, where a digital vaccine certificate is presented to determine what people can or cannot do.
Other countries have used vaccine passes as a condition of entry at custom checkpoints, and at domestic venues, such as gyms, cafes, restaurants, and tourist attractions.
This creates both an incentive, driving demand for vaccines, and a two-tiered society dependent on the availability of jabs. Politicians and pundits are already lining up to oppose various forms of vaccine discrimination.
When people in Australia are vaccinated, their information is currently reported to the Australian Immunisation Register (AIR) and automatically uploaded to My Health Record, where it is available to individuals (and their doctors) through a Medicare online account (via MyGov), or the Express Plus Medicare mobile app.
However, the AIR is not a ‘public facing’ applications, but the government has now integrated the Express Plus Medicare app with digital display wallets, that can easily be presented to customs officials, or airline and hotel quarantine staff.
The Australian Digital Health Agency (ADHA) recently kicked off its search for a “digital health mobile channel”. The ADHA told tells Intermedium that its request for tender (DH3389) is for a digital health consumer mobile application:
“The app will also support the COVID-19 response by presenting COVID-19 pathology tests, immunisation, and a vaccination certificate aligned with updates from Services Australia, all in one place.
It will be developed in a phased approach, providing users with access to the health information already contained in My Health Record. The delivery timeframe is ‘before December’ 2021.
Note that the various pathology testing systems used in Australia are not currently connected to a central register.
During a press conference on 21 July, Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that a mutual recognition program is underway to allow Australia’s vaccine certificates to be recognised for travel:
“Later in the year, about October we estimate, we'll have a vaccination certificate that will be able to be used, internationally recognised, to facilitate when people are moving out of the country and into the country, being able to recognise others’ certificates.”
Services Australia recently awarded IBM Hybrid Cloud a $19 million contract to make improvements to the AIR.
Discussions about the possibility of a mobile app to provide a public facing digital record of coronavirus jabs started long before any vaccinations were available in Australia.
In October 2020, Minister Stuart Robert confirmed that digital vaccine certificates were being anticipated when announcing that paper declaration cards for international travel would be replaced with a new Digital Passenger Declaration (DPD)
“The DPD will facilitate information being collected and shared more efficiently while still using the same authority for collection. The DPD will also allow certified COVID vaccination certificates to be digitally uploaded and connected if and when they become available.”
This digital declaration is now called the ‘Australian Travel Declaration’, and incoming arrivals have been asked to provide a voluntary declaration (“attestation”) of their vaccination status since 16 July.
Enabling legislation to require the current mandatory reporting of vaccinations to AIR was initiated six months ago. A bill was introduced to the federal parliament in December (around the time COVID vaccinations started in the UK) and passed both house on 4 February.
The law was introduced before Australia’s public COVID-19 vaccination program officially began on Monday 22 February 2021; one month after the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approved ‘provisional’ use of the Pfizer vaccine.
The Secretary of the Department of Health, Dr Brendan Murphy, was asked about progress on a “vaccine passport” at a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 on 11 March. He rejected this terminology and described the existing AIR system as “proof of vaccination.”
In an interview on the Today Show on 15 March, Minister for Trade and Tourism, Dan Tehan uses the term “vaccine passport”, telling host Alison Langdon that the government was working on it to help restart international travel:
Langdon: “So, what happens in regards to that, with the passport, and being able to prove that you’ve been vaccinated? Is that something that’s easy to establish?”
Tehan: “Well, that’s what we want to work with countries on and we think if we can get that established and in place with New Zealand, if we can get it established and in place with Singapore, that we know that people have a valid certificate to say that they have been vaccinated, that will enable that two-way travel to occur, hopefully without quarantining down the track. And, that’s what we’re working on at the moment. We really want that digital vaccination passport up and running, operating, and in a way that we know that we can trust it.
The government announced that existing AIR records could be converted into a simplified digital certificate (or a printed immunisation history) on 9 June, if people want to provide proof of their COVID-19 vaccine status.
This may have been useful for our Olympic athletes getting ready to go to Tokyo, but with most people banned from overseas travel, there are few uses for vaccine certificates.
Vaccine certificates are being used in different ways overseas. Some countries are using them to create permissions system, primarily to drive up vaccination rates. Others are incorporating pathology testing.
Bahrain introduced a digital vaccine certificate on 18 February, by adding it as a feature to their existing BeAware app, which was already being used for contact tracing and making vaccine bookings. It is also used to facilitate international travel (and boost diplomatic ties with Israel).
China started issuing digital vaccine certificates (vaccine status and test results) in partnership with AliPay and WeChat in March.
Also in March, the Danish National Agency for Digitization called for bids to develop a ‘corona pass’ within two months, to include test results, and the vaccination and antibody status of holders. It has been using the coronapas since April.
A consortium led by IBM, including blockchain firm Ubirch, won the tender for digital vaccine certificates in Germany in March. The CovPass was rolled out in June.
Qantas began passenger trials with the CommonPass app on repatriation flights in March, after testing it with aircrew in February. Developed by the non-profit Commons Project, the app allows people to store and display their test results and vaccination information to airline and customs officials.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) took the initiative to launch a dedicated COVID-19 testing and vaccination app on 15 April. The IATA Travel Pass allows users to find information on travel, testing and vaccine requirements for their journey, and links entities that need verification (airlines and governments) with test or vaccination data when travellers permit.
Both CommonPass and IATA Travel Pass can also be integrated into existing airline travel apps, so users can verify their vaccine status at the time they check-in online.
The EU Digital COVID Certificate (DCC) became the standard for travel throughout Europe on 1 July, with all 27 member states signed up.
Israel introduced the Green Pass (or Green Badge) vaccine certification system in February. It was primarily used as a permissions system, a condition of entry to gyms and restaurants, driving up vaccination rates. With infections falling, and 81% of the adult population fully vaccinated, the Green pass system was scrapped on 1 June.
France recently attempted to introduce a similar system, but it has met with widespread street protests.
Until outbound travel restrictions are lifted, Australians currently have very few practical uses for digital vaccine certification.
Proof of vaccination is a condition of entry for many destinations, but Australian citizens and permanent residents also require an “outward travel exemption” to leave the country.
Those wanting to travel to New Zealand as part of the ‘Trans-Tasman bubble’ are required to show proof of a recent pathology test, but “don't need to be vaccinated for COVID-19 to travel on a quarantine-free flight”.
On a lighter note, at a press conference on Friday 9 July Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed he had intervened to allow the Prince Alfred pub in Port Melbourne to continue a promotion to provide free beers to people who can provide proof they have been vaccinated.
He explained that the Therapeutic Goods Administration had cautioned the pub because firms are not allowed to provide “incentives of alcohol or cigarettes to get people to buy prescription medicines” (COVID-19 vaccines are free).
The TGA updated advice to clarify that any party can offer “rewards to people who have been fully vaccinated”, just as long as “an offer of alcohol must not encourage excessive or rapid consumption of alcohol.”
Just as well, as in the absence of foreign travel, or integration with QR code and other permissions systems, getting ‘contactless’ free beer might be the only practical use for digital vaccine certificates.
But cheers to that.