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EU seeking pan-European Covid-19 passport solution

The European Union’s proposal could see the creation of a Covid-19 vaccine passport to enable travel across the EU

The European Union (EU) is exploring the possibility of implementing a bloc-wide Covid-19 vaccination passport certificate in an attempt to revive the shattered travel and tourism sector.

Development of the so-called Digital Green Pass was teased by European Commission (EC) president Ursula von der Leyen in a series of tweets on 1 March 2021.

Von der Leyen said the aim was to demonstrate proof that someone has received a Covid-19 vaccination, the results of rapid Covid-19 tests for people who have been unable to receive a vaccine yet, and information on Covid-19 recovery.

“The Digital Green Pass should facilitate Europeans’ lives. The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad – for work or tourism,” she said.

Von der Leyen added that any such future solution would “respect data protection, security and privacy”, although she offered no further details of how this goal would be met.

The proposals come following moves already taken by some EU countries – among them Denmark and Sweden – to introduce such passports, but in a clear demonstration that EU member states are independent countries that retain full sovereignty, others – including Belgium, France and Germany – are holding back.

Some in the travel industry have also expressed concerns. Speaking to the Financial Times, Lastminute.com chief executive Marco Corradino said he feared that creating a standard vaccine passport infrastructure spanning 27 different countries was not a feasible aim if the EU was to open up for tourism in time for the summer of 2021.

User privacy and the potential for discrimination in vaccine passports have also been highlighted, as Belgian deputy PM and minister for foreign affairs, Sophie Wilmès, tweeted: “For Belgium, there is no question of linking vaccination to the freedom to move around Europe. Respect for the principle of non-discrimination is all the more fundamental as vaccination is not mandatory and there is not yet universal access to the vaccine.”

In the UK, privacy campaigners have spoken out against the idea of creating vaccine passports for similar reasons, arguing that they could easily turn out to be discriminatory and invasive, and open the door to wider government surveillance.

Even technologists intimately involved in the development of such solutions have urged a degree of caution. Speaking to Computer Weekly at the end of February, Ed Rayner, commercial director of Blok BioScience, which has already produced its own digital health pass, said he understood the public’s concerns.

“We know that there is some apprehension about the idea of vaccine passports in some quarters, which is why it is so important that great consideration is given as to which do the best job of addressing the public’s concerns around data privacy and ethics,” he said.

“If they are delivered in this way, then we truly believe that vaccine passports provide the best way to enable life to return to normal while protecting privacy and health – and that return to normal is something that we all so desperately need.”

The UK government is currently testing a jointly developed vaccine passport system – backed by Innovate UK – with a number of directors of public health. These trials are currently scheduled to conclude by the end of March.

Read more about vaccine passports

  • Privacy campaigners warn that vaccine passports may turn out to be discriminatory and invasive, while technologists agree careful consideration must be given to their design.
  • Vaccine or immunity passports are an opportunity to advance the design of trustworthy digital systems, but much more work still needs to be done.
  • Vaccination Credential Initiative is working to ensure that people vaccinated against Covid-19 can access their records in a secure, verifiable and privacy-preserving way.

Read more on Privacy and data protection

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