A plane passenger shows her passport on arrival in Tunisia. Combining immunity passports with rapid testing for those without them could be a way of unlocking many mass activities such as air travel © Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty

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It seems an enticing vision of the near future: air passengers at passport control hold their phones to a scanner that reads a code showing they have been vaccinated against coronavirus. No more on-arrival testing or quarantines. With inoculation programmes gathering pace, so is talk of “vaccination passports” that would help to reopen international travel, and potentially other restricted activities. Though attractive in principle, however, such initiatives need careful handling to avoid pitfalls.

Multiple efforts are already under way. The Vaccination Credential Initiative, a coalition including Microsoft, Oracle and several US health groups, is working on a digital passport to verify that an individual has had a jab, while guarding their privacy. EU leaders will on Thursday discuss a Greek call for certificates “facilitating freedom of movement” for the vaccinated. Five airlines are already offering passengers the use of a digital pass certifying they are Covid-free called CommonPass, backed by the World Economic Forum.

Yet one potential drawback is that while jabs protect against falling ill with Covid-19, it is still unclear to what extent they prevent recipients from passing the virus on. Most experts think vaccines will reduce transmission but not entirely eliminate it. More clarity will emerge as contact tracing starts to show whether any new cases have been passed on by vaccinees. Until then, jabs cannot be relied on as a way of cutting transmission — though authorities can at least be confident that vaccinated travellers are unlikely to fall ill and burden health systems.

Another consideration is that a survey of 20,000 UK healthcare workers showed those who had had the virus were as protected against reinfection as vaccinees. It would arguably be fairer to issue passes based either on vaccination or immunity. Yet while health authorities generally manage inoculations, antibody tests often come from private clinics, making it harder to prevent abuses. Common standards would also need to be agreed.

There are other issues of potential discrimination. The guiding principle of vaccine passports should be to facilitate, without imposing de facto prohibitions on those without them. While governments should encourage people to have jabs, citizens have a right to refrain or may be barred for medical reasons. Phased rollouts and limited supply will also create vaccine haves and have-nots for some time yet. It is vital to avoid a two-tier world where the inoculated rich can roam at will but those from poorer countries are locked out. The World Health Organization chief has already warned of a “catastrophic moral failure” as poorer nations fall behind in vaccine access.

Immunity passports should therefore not be compulsory for travel; those without should still be able to participate subject to testing requirements. Allowing those with the right code on their smartphone to follow one channel while others stand in line for a swab still means some discrimination. But it will at least alleviate pressure on testing resources and accelerate the return of normal economic activity without barring anyone. Indeed, combining immunity passports with rapid testing for those without them could be a way of unlocking many mass activities.

A co-ordinated international system would be preferable to a plethora of schemes. It may be too late to achieve that in the short-term, and resources should not be diverted from the priority of maximising vaccinations. But over time, as jabs wear off or new variants appear, requiring further inoculations, a global system of certifications could help us to move, finally, into the post-coronavirus era.

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