The notion of a vaccine passport scheme, seems to be a quickly catching idea to restart the tourism industries in many countries. The basic premise would be that those who are vaccinated against COVID-19 would be able to travel freely or more freely to certain countries that accepted the ‘passport’. Some variations may allow those who have recovered from coronavirus or present a negative COVID-19 test to also attain a vaccine passport.
Some countries are already implementing this or similar schemes, with the European union recently presenting a proposal for digital Covid passports. There have even been some suggestions that the passports could be used internally in a country to allow the ‘safe’ opening of entertainment venues such as theatres and restaurants. However, since the idea’s initial musings, there have been questions on the ethicality of the scheme as many worried that it would lead to discrimination.
In the UK vaccine passports have not yet been authorized but the idea has been bouncing around Parliament following the EU’s proposal for their introduction by summer. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), who have been reviewing the idea, said that the certificates could help ease restrictions “in principle” but, they would create a “two-tier society whereby only certain groups are able to fully enjoy their rights” adding that blanket vaccination policies are “likely to be unlawful” (perhaps referring to the recent suggestion that vaccinations for careers working in care home should be made mandatory).
The BBC reported: ‘the independent commission says Covid status certificates – sometimes called Covid passports – could discriminate against marginalized groups where take-up of the vaccine is lower, as well as the small number of people who cannot have the vaccine for medical reasons. Requiring the certificates for travel, going to work, enjoying social activities or accessing essential services could risk further excluding people from some ethnic minority groups, migrants and people from lower socio-economic groups, the watchdog said.’
In the UK, after months of denying the introduction of international or domestic vaccine passport schemes, the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson announced a review into the idea. Government officials have since suggested that ‘COVID Status’ certificates could be introduced for a limited time and record whether a person has been vaccinated, tested negative or developed natural immunity from an infection within a six-month time frame. Suggestions included that they could be used to gain access to a pub or theatre, but apparently ruled out the use of such documents being needed in essential shops or on public transport. According to the BBC ‘the FA Cup final in May is one large-scale event where certification will be trialed.’
Chair of the EHRC, Baroness Kishwer Falkner, said that if they are introduced that they must be time-limited and regularly reviewed to ensure they are proportionate and those that are not able to take the vaccine should have easy access to exception documentation. She stated: ‘”We would monitor the rollout to ensure the right balance is struck between protecting the public’s health and our individual freedoms.”
Some people have allergies to the vaccination, are unable to take the vaccination due to pregnancy, have not yet been offered the vaccine or else cannot access it and some may not want to take the vaccination for personal reasons.
EHRC also raised concerns about proposals to make vaccination a condition of employment, stating that this would be a “significant departure from current public health policy” and may lead to contractual requirements to have other vaccinations. It argued that a “a blanket policy requiring workers to be vaccinated, applied inflexibly, is likely to be unlawful”.
Echoing the BBC, the Guardian also reported: ‘But it said they risked further excluding groups among whom vaccine take-up is lower – including migrants, those from minority ethnic backgrounds and poorer socio-economic groups – from access to essential services and employment. “There is a risk of unlawful discrimination if decisions taken in this process disadvantage people with protected characteristics who have not received, or are not able to receive, the vaccine, unless they can be shown to be justified,” it said. “Any mandatory requirement for vaccination or the implementation of Covid-status certification may amount to indirect discrimination, unless the requirement can be objectively justified.”’
The Watchdog outlined that in the UK, apart from a few exceptions it is against the law for an employer to ask about a job applicants health before making an offer of employment, which includes vaccination status.