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The BulletinSeptember 8, 2021

NZ to have vaccine passport by Christmas

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Meant for international travel, a debate looms for the country on how the passports will be used domestically, Justin Giovannetti writes in The Bulletin.

A vaccine passport is coming. New Zealanders will soon have access to digital proof that they’ve received a Covid-19 vaccination. Colloquially known as a “vaccine passport”, a government-run app will soon be as indispensable as a real passport for international travel. Many countries already require them to sit at a bar or attend a sports game. You can’t climb the Eiffel Tower without one.

Qantas has unveiled plans for a travel passport that will make it easier for flyers to get going without needing to bring other proof of immunisation to the airport. Air New Zealand has said it won’t mandate vaccine passports, but expects clients will keep track of requirements. Proof of vaccination is already a condition of entry for a number of countries around the world. Just as you can’t board many international flights now without the right visa, the vaccine passport will be added to your pre-flight checklist.

What it’ll look like. If you want to travel now to a number of destinations you need to first request a letter from the government attesting to your vaccination status. It’s a significant risk and there are stories of countries turning down the printed documents. Instead, the Ministry of Health says “a digital Covid-19 vaccination certificate” will be available from December for New Zealanders who want to travel overseas.

The term passport can be politically loaded—think of “papers, please”—so it’s one of the reasons many places around the world opt to call them certificates instead. New Zealand’s app will contain a QR code, a digital signature and the certificate itself will be printable.

The health ministry has been clear that New Zealand’s passport is designed for international travel and said nothing about domestic use. Based on how the passports have evolved around the world, that won’t last.

What’s happened overseas. The UK rolled out the passports for international travel, only to then announce that they’ll be required to get into English nightclubs and other venues in England at the end of the month, the BBC has reported. Despite criticisms, the government has said it’s the only way to reopen the economy safely. In many cases, private industry was ahead of the British parliament, with Premier League clubs requiring fans to show proof of vaccination when they reopened stadiums to capacity crowds last month.

The looming debate. I spoke with Andrew Chen, a researcher at the University of Auckland, about a debate that’s about to take off in New Zealand. It’ll start like this: A business, hypothetically a supermarket chain, will announce that all customers will need to show the vaccine passport to buy groceries. Suddenly the international passport is domestic. The government can either ban businesses from using them this way (unlikely), or set the standards for who can ask for the passports and when.

“It’s coming. The government just needs to make a decision and figure out how to control the risks of discrimination and problems created by using an international document in a domestic context,” says Chen.

How does it discriminate? With Māori and Pacific peoples expected to have lower vaccination rates, do we just accept that portions of those communities will be banned from businesses going forward? That’s not a long-term solution, says Chen. There are also human rights and privacy implications that need to be settled. Chen has already received reports of employers asking their staff to tell them when they’ve booked vaccines. The privacy commissioner has said that vaccination status is health information that’s private and protected by legislation. This will only become a more significant issue in the coming weeks.

While the freedom of movement is enshrined into the New Zealand bill of rights, limits on that freedom have been justified on public health grounds. A number of the country’s international agreements also require it to prevent and control epidemic diseases.

What about people with exemptions? It’s one thing to trust trained border guards with the information in a vaccine passport, it’s another thing completely with a bouncer at a club or a security guard at a restaurant. The EU’s vaccine passport is working on a way to indicate when someone has a legitimate reason for not being vaccinated, something Chen says should be pursued in New Zealand as well. As he explains, do you want to show a supermarket worker a note from your GP that you’ve got a disease?

International exemptions will vary. What happens when a visitor from overseas arrives with an approved vaccine passport that says they’ve not been jabbed but they have, for example, a religious exemption not recognised by New Zealand? Chaos.

There’s a lot more chaos. Astrid Koornneef, a manager in the government’s Covid-19 vaccination programme, told The Bulletin that work is under way to ensure the passport is “compatible with emerging international standards, so it can be recognised by as many countries as possible”. The US, European Union and Australia have all developed vaccine passports technologies that can’t be used interchangeably. This is something the world will need to sort out. The best case scenario, according to Chen, is that you can change the settings in the app and get a different QR code for each jurisdiction.

The BMJ has published a helpful map with descriptions of a number of vaccine passports. Here are some systems being used overseas:

  • The European Union has a “digital Covid certificate” which proves that people have been vaccinated, received a negative test result or have recovered from Covid-19. It’s been in force across the EU since July 1 and has been adopted by nine neighbouring non-EU states, including Norway, Turkey and the Ukraine. Many EU countries require a vaccine passport for domestic venues.
  • The United States federal government has said it won’t adopt a national passport, while seven states like New York and California are slowly rolling out proof-of-vaccination systems. Another 22 American states have banned vaccine passports, largely along partisan lines, with Republicans opposing the apps. The MIT Technology Review has a fascinating look at the politics behind US vaccine apps.
  • Canada is working on a digital vaccine passport for overseas travel and most provinces are implementing local versions as a requirement for people to access restaurants, bars and other venues.
  • The Israeli government has a “green pass system,” allowing people over the age of 12 who are vaccinated to attend large events. It was suspended after the country’s vaccine rollout largely surpassed the virus, but was reinstated in July.
  • Singapore has bundled a vaccine passport into its contact tracing app and is required to enter many venues, including malls, schools and places of worship.
  • China has largely outsourced the job to private industry, with Alipay creating an app that sorts people based on national surveillance data into whether they should be restricted in their domestic movements. WeChat has created a health certificate for international travel showing vaccine status.

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