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Commentary: Vaccine passports are within reach but important details must be worked out first

Digital vaccine passports could be the way to reviving not just travel but the global economy, says Accenture’s Chief Executive Officer for Growth Markets, Gianfranco Casati.

Commentary: Vaccine passports are within reach but important details must be worked out first

The Changi Airport control tower in front of Jewel Changi Airport (Photo: Jeremy Long)

SINGAPORE: It’s a Sunday. At England’s iconic Wembley stadium, the arena reverberates with the thunderous cheers of 60,000 football fans watching their teams battle for glory.

With faces painted in patriotic colours, crowds proudly hold up their nation’s flags in the air. A goal brings about high-fives, hugging and singing. The excitement is electrifying.

This scene isn’t a dream throwback to the good old days before the pandemic upended the world and ended mass gatherings. It was reality this June and July, when Euro 2020 fever swept across European stadiums.

From Baku in Azerbaijan to London in England, fans showed up ­– albeit in reduced numbers – for the continent’s football championship. Many travelled from abroad to soak in the atmosphere.

What made this possible during a pandemic? Three things: Vaccine roll-outs, COVID-19 test kits and technology. 

Besides their tickets, fans also came with a vaccine passport to prove they were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or had tested negative no more than 48 hours before.

READ: Commentary: Can Phuket's sandbox be a model for vaccine tourism?

These have breathed life back into industries battered by the pandemic. Sporting tournaments, live events and tourism activities are regaining their vibrancy.

Such developments augur well for the global economy. But for it to fully reopen and get back on track, travel must also resume.

After more than a year of staying home, most people are also yearning to head overseas. But travel must include more extensive health checks at transportation hubs. Vital are digital vaccine passports in beating a path back to normalcy in a post-pandemic era.

READ: Commentary: Requiring proof of vaccination for travel raises bigger questions

DIGITAL VACCINE PASSPORTS ARE COMING INTO FOCUS

The idea of vaccine verification is not new. 

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Yellow Card is an internationally recognised medical passport required for entry to certain countries with increased health risks. Travellers need to be inoculated against yellow fever before visiting certain African nations like Ghana and Cameroon.

While the WHO’s Yellow Card comes in the form of an actual booklet, the proposed COVID-19 vaccine passport will be a digital alternative – a world’s first.

Arriving passengers queue at UK Border Control at the Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport in London, Britain June 29, 2021. (File photo: REUTERS/Hannah Mckay)

There is already a precedent to follow. The European Union’s (EU) 27-member nations along with Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein – are already using the EU Digital COVID Certificate, which exempts holders from testing or quarantine when travelling within the EU.

In Asia, Japan is lobbying for its vaccine passports to be accepted by over 10 countries that includes Italy, France and Greece. 

Tourism-reliant Thailand has also backed the use of vaccine passports by planning to excuse holders from quarantine, as the country looks to fully reopen its doors to vaccinated visitors by mid-October after an experiment to create a travel bubble within Phuket. 

At home, Singapore too is considering vaccine passports. It has already launched HealthCerts in March, a digital test result certificate, with a beta version piloted since last year used to expedite the re-entry of migrant workers into their workplaces and dorms.

READ: Commentary: Targeted travel restrictions needed but careful not to undermine Changi Airport's connectivity

Authorities are exploring the possibility of extending it to cover vaccine certificates. People vaccinated against COVID-19 will be given "some concession" when travelling or returning to Singapore, co-chair of the COVID-19 multi-ministry task force Gan Kim Yong said on Thursday (Jun 24).

Singapore Airlines is also trialling a new digital health verification process allowing passengers to present their vaccination status and COVID-19 test results, paving the way for travel to eventually resume. 

Air traffic is picking up finally. At least eight in 10 pilots and cabin crew are returning to the skies at least once a month.

PRIVACY, SECURITY AND INEQUALITY

However, a global implementation of vaccine certificates will face numerous challenges.

One is simply the sheer complexity of rolling one out globally. While the technical aspects of developing a digital vaccine passport are not difficult, the devil is in the details.

A universally accepted set of regulations is needed to ensure immigration processes at border controls will run smoothly. Countries must agree on authentication protocols and how data will be stored. This is easier said than done.

Sigal Baram, 54, a newly-arrived tourist from Israel, enjoys in a swimming pool as Phuket reopens to overseas tourists. (Photo: REUTERS/Jorge Silva)

For one thing, data privacy is a big challenge. How such data will be protected against potential abuse and unauthorised use in commercialisation will be key to establishing a firm foundation for cooperation.

The EU’s Digital COVID Certificate, how it isolates data to the platform and does not store data when the certificate is verified through its QR code or by human checks is one model but there are many others, requiring reconciliation.

Data protection will likewise be vital. Ransomware has already taken down some of the biggest companies in the world, and hackers will be circling the huge treasure trove of sensitive data in vaccine passports.

Blockchain technology, used in Singapore’s HealthCerts, is one option offering comprehensive protection. Its transparent nature on how data is stored and shared will help build trust with travellers, airlines and countries alike.

Establishing trust and confidence in the ability of the system to protect personal information can encourage countries like the US, which does not have a centralised identification system, to go along with a global digital vaccine passport plan.

(Why not allow dining in for those vaccinated when MICE and other big events can continue? Public health experts discuss whether new rules mean prior plans to live normally with COVID-19 will shift on this week’s Heart of the Matter podcast.)

TACKLING THE ETHICS OF A VACCINE PASSPORT

Rolling out a digital vaccine passport will also require countries to confront several ethical considerations.

First, how do we manage the digital divide? The technological inequality between nations and socio-economic barriers will lead to the exclusion of certain groups, such as people who do not have access to technology, or the unvaccinated.

Tackling this will mean embarking on a global effort not only to encourage people to get vaccinated but to also provide vaccination for all. Wealthy countries such as the US and UK must continue to provide access to vaccination for poorer countries struggling to get back to normalcy.

READ: Commentary: Privacy in a pandemic — can I ask my GP if they’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19?

People pass the control tower of Singapore's Changi Airport, Singapore, on Jan 18, 2021. (Photo: REUTERS/Edgar Su)

Then there’s the inevitable debate over the type of vaccinations accepted under global norms, given varying levels of protection each offers. Countries too have different goals: Some want higher levels of protection against infection, while others are focused on preventing individuals from getting hospitalised.

Clearly, the issue is a complex one, which requires a global and coordinated effort to develop a solution.

Many aspects of a digital vaccine passport rollout, such as collating and storing of national identification, is within the remit of public sector. But the private sector can provide the expertise to harness blockchain technology, paving the way for collaboration between the two sides.

READ: Commentary: In Singapore’s bold plan to reopen, these are the hard-nosed decisions society must make

On a multilateral level, countries need to work together to allow the open flow of data, shared experiences and thought leadership to help shape recovery policies. 

For example, the effectiveness of the EU Digital COVID Certificate will depend on member states abiding by the common framework set out earlier this year and refraining from imposing sudden and additional travel restrictions on the holders the vaccine passport.

TAKING FIRST STEPS

A bold vision of globally accepted digital vaccine passports can begin small. Establishing a global system will likely start with countries most eager to move ahead on a bilateral basis.

Singapore and Estonia are exploring the mutual recognition of digital vaccination e-certs.

There is no doubt that resuming global travel and reopening borders will be contingent on vaccine passports.

READ: Commentary: Southeast Asia risks falling behind other regions in recovering aviation and tourism

Still, they are not a free pass for people to travel freely when countries can still decide to impose restrictions and quarantine policies as the COVID-19 situation morphs. And it could take some time for mutual recognition.

But hopefully, with patience, cooperation, and innovation, we will soon be able to cheer our football teams in the flesh, anywhere in the world.

Gianfranco Casati is Accenture’s Chief Executive Officer for Growth Markets.

Source: CNA/sl

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