MS Risk Blog

Western Europe’s Division on adopting a Vaccine Passport

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As vaccination rollouts continue across western Europe attention is now turning to vaccine passports. A vaccine passport is a digital documentation for an individual who has been vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus. Stored on a phone or digital wallet, the data is typically presented as a QR code and would allow for individuals to travel more freely. Although this is a fairly new idea in regard to the coronavirus, vaccine documentation is not unprecedented. In the past people have had to show “yellow cards” as proof of vaccination against diseases like cholera, yellow fever, and rubella. However, the idea of a digital passport is not without controversy, particularly among activists.

There is a division among western European nations on whether the EU should implement a vaccine passport. Spain, Denmark, and Greece support the vaccine passport because the economies, particularly Spain and Greece, rely heavily on tourism. With travel being restricted for the past year economies that rely heavily on tourism in the summer months have taken a hit. Tourism-dependent economies desperately need a strong summer travel season. With the vaccine rollout there is hope that summer travel can resume, and a vaccine passport can jumpstart tourism and allow governments to feel more secure on bringing people into the country. The cause of such strict travel restrictions is to stop the spread of the virus and the vaccine passport will provide a level of security for governments knowing the virus is significantly less likely to spread among individuals who have gotten the vaccine. The tourism industry is the most eager to put the idea into practice. Airlines such as Qantas are already requiring proof of vaccination for international flights. There are other reasons governments are wanting to establish a vaccine passport beyond travel. Universities could open up with the confidence of knowing that the students are vaccinated, along with employees going back into work, and entertainment venues like movie theaters and restaurants opening up.

On the other side of the argument are countries like France and Germany, who say the vaccine passport will increase inequality until everyone has the opportunity to get vaccinated. There is a fear that the vaccine requirement for travel will lead to discrimination among age groups, ethnicities, and those not wanting to get vaccinated. Across the region, vaccinations were first given to elderly people and the most vulnerable. It is expected that the younger generations will not receive a vaccination until early summer. It would also affect those with vaccine hesitancy. The most common reasons for hesitancy are concerns about the side effects and long-term effects of the vaccine. Travel being permitted for those with a vaccine passport can be perceived as a mandatory vaccination, which would impose on the civil liberties of individuals.

Currently, there is no international agreement on vaccine passports. Instead, countries are coming up with options they hope to see imposed. A decision will need to be made at some point but there continues to be a deep divide between those for and against it. A British petition has surpassed 260,000 signatures for the UK government to not rollout out a COVID-19 vaccine passport. Due to the high level of signatures, Parliament will now debate this petition on March 15, 2021. The European Commission proposed a ‘digital green pass’ that would provide proof that a person has been vaccinated, as well as test results for those not yet vaccinated. This proposed pass can be seen as a “happy medium” because it allows individuals to travel if they have had a recent negative COVID-19 test and will respect data protection, security, and privacy. The draft for the legislation is expected to be published on March 17, 2021.

While the debate continues, governments are under pressure to find a balance between travel restrictions and the need for summer travel to start up economies reliant on tourism and individual’s rights. A vaccine passport will not bring things back to normal but is it a small step towards healing economies. Despite the back and forth within governments and the worry among citizens, a vaccine passport scheme is still months away. There is plenty of uncertainty around vaccine passports, but it seems those who receive vaccinations will have an easier time traveling in the coming months.