Vaccines: passports to normality?

After a year of mostly terrible news, the rapid roll-out of the coronavirus vaccination programme in the UK has at last brought some positive headlines.

Assuming that challenges with supply or new virus mutations do not derail the programme, it is likely that the entire UK adult population will have been offered a vaccination later in 2021. This brings with it the tantalising prospect of reopening the economy, and our lives returning to something approaching normality.

Despite the success of the vaccine roll-out, we know that covid-19 is not going to disappear immediately. None of the current vaccines offer 100% protection, and not everyone wants or is able to be vaccinated. So how can we reopen the economy and restore international travel without risking another wave of infections? One possible ‘solution’ is the introduction of so-called vaccine passports. A vaccine passport is a document, probably in electronic form, that provides official confirmation that the individual has had a recent and up-to-date vaccination against covid-19.

For individuals, particularly those who have received the vaccine already, there are clear and obvious benefits to a system of vaccine passports. But they do raise some very difficult legal and ethical challenges. Will businesses be guilty of discrimination if they refuse to serve customers without a vaccine passport? Can employers insist on their employees having a vaccine, and sack them if they don’t? What if an individual refuses the vaccine on religious grounds? Or because of an underlying health condition? And what about the risks of inaccurate data or data breaches?

At this stage, all this is theoretical. Not everyone has had the opportunity to be vaccinated and the current restrictions mean most businesses that may wish to rely on vaccine passports are closed. But governments across the world, including in the UK, are known to be looking at such measures. Separately, a number of private companies are working on technological solutions to allow individuals to ‘prove’ that they have been vaccinated. Once available, this technology is likely to prove very popular among people desperate to return to their former lives, particularly if businesses decide to restrict services only to those who can demonstrate that they have been vaccinated. There have already been media reports of travel companies insisting that customers are vaccinated prior to travelling, while Charlie Mullins of Pimlico Plumbers has written about his aim to make the vaccinate mandatory for new starters.

Businesses will need to think very carefully before requiring their customers to provide ‘proof’ that they have received a covid vaccine, particularly in the absence of any officially sanctioned vaccine passport, certification or other document. They will need to be sure that the data they are collecting is accurate, reliable and safe from manipulation. The types of manual vaccination appointment cards given by the NHS don’t provide sufficient reassurance, as they are not intended to be a definitive record and are clearly open to being copied or misused. Realistically, the importance of a vaccine passport, or lack of one, is likely to require some form of government involvement.

Assuming these practical challenges can be overcome, a business wishing to utilise vaccine passports will still need to comply with data protection law. This means having a valid lawful basis for collecting and retaining data, and ensuring that any data is used proportionately and only where necessary for a clearly defined purpose. Information about health merits special protection under data protection law, and so its use is tightly controlled. Businesses will need to justify their use of vaccine passports and clearly explain to individuals how information about them will be used.

If services are to be denied or employment restricted as a result of checking vaccine passports, then businesses will need to take into account equality and human rights legislation. Depending on the specific context, a blanket policy requiring individuals to show a vaccine passport may be disproportionate and therefore discriminatory. At the very least, businesses should put in place systems to allow individuals to explain why they may not be able to provide proof of vaccination and to challenge any inaccuracies in the data. There is a risk that some individuals will be effectively ‘blacklisted’ because of their failure to provide proof of vaccination, shutting them out of areas of public life as society begins to reopen.

Despite all of these issues, our collective desperation for a return to normality is likely to mean that we’ll see some sort of vaccine passport scheme in the near future. The challenge for government is to ensure that the scheme is accurate, available and secure. It will then be up to businesses to decide in what circumstances it is fair and lawful to insist on a vaccine passport.

Jon Belcher

Jon Belcher is a specialist data protection and information governance lawyer at Excello Law.

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Vaccine passports: path back to normality or problem in the making?

FILE PHOTO: Vials with AstraZeneca’s coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine are seen at the vaccination centre in the Newcastle Eagles Community Arena, in Newcastle upon Tyne, Britain, January 30, 2021. REUTERS/Lee Smith

February 4, 2021

By Natalie Thomas

LONDON (Reuters) – Governments and developers around the world are exploring the potential use of “vaccine passports” as a way of reopening the economy by identifying those protected against the coronavirus.

Those developing the technologies however, say such tools come with consequences such as potentially excluding whole groups from social participation, and are urging lawmakers to think seriously about how they are used.

The travel and entertainment industries, which have struggled to operate at a profit while imposing social distancing regulations, are particularly interested in a way of swiftly checking who has protection.

Among those developing passports are biometrics company iProov and cyber security firm Mvine which have built a vaccine pass now being tested within Britain’s National Health Service after receiving UK government funding.

iProov founder and chief executive Andrew Bud believes such vaccine passports only really need to hold two pieces of information.

“One is, has this person been vaccinated? And the other is, what does this person look like?”

You need only match a face to a vaccination status, you don’t need to know a person’s identity, he added.

Confirmation of patrons’ vaccination status could help the night-time economy, which employs some 420,000 people in the northern English city of Manchester, off its knees, experts say.

“We have to look at how to get back to normal,” said Sacha Lord, an industry adviser and co-founder of the city’s Parklife music festival.

While there have been experiments in socially distanced concerts and events over the last year, they weren’t financially viable, he said.

“A gig isn’t a gig or a festival isn’t a festival unless you are stood shoulder to shoulder with your friends.

“I don’t think we should be forcing people into the vaccine passports. It should be a choice. But on entry, if you don’t have that passport, then we will give you another option,” he added, suggesting the use of rapid result coronavirus tests.

Bud said vaccine certificates were being rolled out in some countries, and in the United Sates, some private sector health passes were being used to admit customers to sports events.

“I think vaccine certificates raise huge social and political issues. Our job is to provide the technology basis for making vaccine passports and certificates possible … It is not our place to make judgments about whether they are a good idea or not,” he said.

Potential issues could arise around discrimination, privilege and exclusion of the younger generation who would be last in line to be vaccinated, he said, adding he believed government was giving it careful consideration.

(Reporting by Natalie Thomas; Writing by Alexandra Hudson; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

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Coronavirus update: German Chancellor Angela Merkel says pandemic to worsen, vaccine key for normality

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned the coronavirus pandemic could worsen in coming months, and that life will not return to normal until a vaccine against it had been developed.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Government has urged people to return to their offices and workplaces to help the economy recover from the pandemic.

Saturday’s key moments:

Merkel says pandemic to worsen, vaccine key for normality

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned the coronavirus pandemic could worsen in coming months, and that life will not return to normal until a vaccine has been developed.

Western Europe’s longest serving leader also called on the world to accelerate the fight against global warming, and for Germany and Europe to maintain dialogue with other major powers through difficult times while beating the drum for democracy.

But as Ms Merkel makes preparations to step down before the next national election in October 2021, she made clear that she expects the pandemic to define her last year in office.

Urging citizens not to drop their guard against the virus as Germany’s daily infection rate rises, she told a news conference: “This is a serious matter, as serious as it’s ever been, and you need to carry on taking it seriously.”

Ms Merkel says further contracts for COVID-19 vaccines were “in the works” between drug companies and the EU.(Reuters: Andreas Gebert)

Even though Germany would not fully repay debt incurred to fund relief measures offsetting the impact of COVID-19 until 2058, such stimulus was essential as the economy could not be allowed to grind to a halt, she said.

Her Government would also work to foster social cohesion in the face of the pandemic, focusing on protecting children and other vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and low-income families, from its effects.

Meanwhile, she said further contracts for COVID-19 vaccines were “in the works” between drug companies and the European Union, whose rotating presidency Germany holds until December.

Spain cracks down on pandemic-denier for inciting hatred

Spanish police arrested a man near the north-eastern city of Zaragoza, who believed the coronavirus pandemic to be a hoax, for inciting hatred and violence by using several anonymous social-media profiles.

The 38-year-old, who claimed that health professionals and the media were behind what he called the “COVID farce”, urged his followers to attack politicians and journalists, police said.

In other posts he said the headquarters of Spain’s doctors’ union should be burned down and described those who believed in the virus as bad and ignorant people who deserved to die, according to the police.

Passing himself off as a government official, police said the suspect allegedly made calls to nursing homes, hospitals and football clubs to spread false information about the pandemic.

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