The vaccination centre at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam © Bloomberg

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Like it or not, digital vaccine passes will soon be a fact of life. Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, this week announced plans for a “digital green pass” aimed at reviving the bloc’s traumatised tourism industry.

Israel has already implemented its programme, which bestows privileged access to gyms, concerts and other venues on the vaccinated. Los Angeles is refusing to allow children back to school without a “health pass”. And increasingly desperate businesses — in particular in the airline industry — are saying they will not welcome customers without one. Saga Holidays has said all its customers will have to show proof of vaccination before embarking on a cruise while Qantas expects passengers to do the same before flying internationally. 

The prospect of a digital health passport has sparked the inevitable debates about exclusion, discrimination, state surveillance and individual privacy. Some are valid concerns and have to be addressed seriously. The key will be what rules governments set for the use of these passports. But for businesses and many individuals entering a second year of lockdown, any measure that gets an economy going again has to be welcome.

More important, any restart is likely to be cautious and varied. Not all countries will reopen borders or even commerce in the same manner, or to the same timetable. So digitising information on who has been vaccinated or tested will be vital to a smooth relaunch of economic activity.

Take the example of aviation. Latest figures show international passenger traffic languishing at roughly 15 per cent of pre-Covid-19 levels, according to Iata, the global airline industry’s trade body. Yet one airline says it has as many agents on the ground as during peak summer months, because of all the paperwork that needs to be checked to verify if a passenger has been vaccinated, or had a test at an accredited laboratory. London’s Heathrow airport recently told the Financial Times that check-in was taking 20 minutes for each passenger. And, of course, there is the growing problem of forged vaccination documents.

Now fast forward to the end of this year when Iata is expecting international passenger traffic to begin to recover. How much longer will the queues be — and how much greater the risk of transmission — if there is no secure contactless system to verify not only a traveller’s Covid-19 status but their legal right to fly to their destination?

Passengers do not seem too fazed by the prospect of digital vaccine passes, if it means being able to travel again. A new survey by Iata of nearly 5,000 passengers in 11 countries shows that 80 per cent would like to have one as soon as possible, as long as they are in full control of their own data.

The question now is how will any new system be implemented? Many private companies are rushing into this arena, spotting an opportunity to profit from a new market. Already there is a confusing range of technologies and standards on offer to tackle the problem. Competition is generally an incentive to innovation. But in this case there may actually be a greater need for collaboration.

Two of the most significant efforts to create a platform for a digital pass are from non-profit organisations. The CommonPass is an initiative of the Commons Project in partnership with the World Economic Forum. Iata has also launched the Travel Pass, which uses global passport standards and its in-house system for verifying that air passengers meet visa and health requirements.

Each platform claims to be open, interoperable and portable. Yet each is being developed separately, opting to compete rather than co-operate.

The problem is that the digital vaccine pass should be more than a quick answer to an immediate crisis. There is an opportunity here to use the Covid-19 pass as a building block for a digital infrastructure that could service public needs well beyond the pandemic — for example in banking, education or public health more generally. Failure to collaborate risks leaving the world with a multi-tiered system that may see users held hostage to a particular type of platform, or region. 

Organisations with the clout of Iata and the Commons Project could use their resources to ensure widespread and global agreement on the standards to be set for this infrastructure, rather than fighting about whose pass is the most effective. Having two camps only creates confusion and undermines the confidence needed to get the world back to work again.

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