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UK government selects NHS App for Covid vaccination passport

UK health service mobile application, currently used by patients to book appointments, order repeat prescriptions and view medical records, chosen to certify jabs record

One person’s affront to civil liberties and another’s convenient way in which to unlock business in the post-Covid environment, vaccination passports are a reality and the UK government has chosen the official National Health Service (NHS) App as the digital mechanism by which a citizen’s vaccination status will be indicated.

The NHS App is available to UK citizens aged 13 or over registered with a GP in England and users will be able to access their Covid-19 vaccination status from 17 May, accessed from a number of mobile such as a smartphone or tablet. Proof of a person’s Covid-19 vaccination status will be shown in the NHS App, functionally that has been in added to satisfy requirements of entry and access to places such as bars, museums and other venues in the UK and abroad.

Even as it was making its announcement, the UK government emphasised that, at present, there were not many countries accepting proof of vaccination. It advised that, for the time being, most people will still need to follow other rules when travelling abroad, such as obtaining a negative pre-departure test.

The NHS App is currently used by patients to book appointments, order repeat prescriptions and view medical records. It came as a surprise to some that the general NHS App was selected to indicate Covid-19 vaccination status, and not the country’s dedicated Covid-19 contact-tracing app, which, after a catalogue of delays, missteps and a complete technological volte-face, was launched on 24 September 2020 – over four months later than originally proposed. As well as supporting contact tracing and booking a test, the app allows users to check their symptoms via a symptom checker.

According to details released by the NHS, by 9 February 2021 ,the app had been downloaded 21.6 million times, representing 56% of the eligible population aged over 16 with a smartphone, and was the second most downloaded free iPhone app on the Apple App Store in 2020. Furthermore, more than 1.7 million NHS Covid-19 app users across England and Wales had been advised by that time to isolate by the app following close contact with someone who later tested positive.

“A [digital] vaccine passport scheme opens the door for data misuse that is both extended and ongoing”
Attila Tomaschek, ProPrivacy

But using an app for the purpose of a vaccination passport has been challenged by the data privacy community. Speaking to Computer Weekly when the idea of using the NHS App was first proposed in April 2021, Attila Tomaschek, a digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy, said that although the announcement would be welcome news for pandemic-weary consumers in need of a break, the plans posed major privacy and civil liberties risks.

“Beyond the obvious privacy concerns surrounding the development of massive stores of personal health data, NHS numbers, passport numbers and individuals’ travel history, there is also a major concern that the data collected by the vaccine passport scheme may be used beyond the scope and timeline of the pandemic by the government or even other third-party agencies,” he said.

“Could the information collected under the scheme be used alongside other personal data to generate so-called ‘personal risk scores’ of the kind we have seen in China for individual UK residents? Could the scheme be used for other outbreaks, other public health purposes, or other completely unrelated purposes in the future? These scenarios are certainly not out of the realm of possibility. Either way, a vaccine passport scheme certainly opens the door for data misuse that is both extended and ongoing.”

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