On 5 April, as Boris Johnson confirmed the easing of lockdown restrictions in England would go ahead as planned, the prospect of “Covid certificates”, or the contentious “vaccine passports”, was raised once again.
The idea is that certificates could be used to allow those who have been vaccinated, have antibodies or have recently tested negative for Covid-19 to travel and have access to certain venues without increasing the risk of transmission.
Michael Gove is overseeing the plans, which include a kind of digital passport, with individuals verifying their health status via an app on their phone. Under current proposals, theatres, nightclubs and mass events could require health certification, but essential amenities such as retail and health services will likely be excluded from any measures. The Prime Minister has suggested it “may be up to individual publicans” whether passports are required to enter individual pubs or restaurant settings.
The aim is clear: to allow the UK economy to unlock without risking another serious wave of Covid infections. But many concerns have been raised: without viable technology-free solutions, it is feared digital passports could exacerbate the existing digital divide, potentially alienating those without access to smartphones. There are also privacy concerns surrounding the sharing of personal health data.
Writing in the Telegraph, Gove sought to allay fears and suggested the UK should take inspiration from Israel’s health passport scheme.
But what is Israel doing exactly – and what could Britain learn from it?
Israel’s “green passport” system allows those who have been fully vaccinated, have tested negative or have recently recovered from Covid-19 to attend restaurants, gyms and mass events.
The pass can be displayed through a QR code on a mobile app, while a physical pass is available for those who need it, which must be used with another form of ID to protect against fraud.
“If Israel can accelerate its citizens’ returns to nightclubs, football stadia and theatres with these certificates, might we?” Gove writes.
But the comparison between the two countries and their schemes is not simple. First, it fails to account for the different rates of progress between the vaccination programmes in Britain and Israel, as well as each country’s vaccine take-up.
Israel has vaccinated nearly 60 per cent of its nine million citizens, with the vast majority of adults having had at least one jab. In the UK, half of adults have been given their first jabs, while most young people are likely to have to wait until June or July to receive theirs. Any vaccine passport system would therefore be more divisive here than in Israel, or else would have to be delayed until a higher percentage of the population has been vaccinated.
Vaccine hesitancy is also an important factor. Around 9 per cent of people in the UK say they are somewhat hesitant about receiving the Covid-19 jab, and percentage that increases among those from minority backgrounds. This problem won’t simply resolve itself as the vaccine rollout continues. If a Covid certificate is required to participate in society, it risks excluding a chunk of the population that is already vulnerable, further deepening the impact of the pandemic on people from minority backgrounds.
The Israeli system has some advantages over the UK proposals, namely that an analogue passport is available. But for all that Israel is held up as a potential model, the introduction of its health passport system has not been completely seamless: the newspaper Haaretz reported systems had struggled to cope with initial demand, while concerns about forgery persist.
Fears around privacy and civil liberties will not vanish. In Israel, protests took place when the system was proposed while in the UK, politicians across the political spectrum, from the Liberal Democrats to members of the Conservative Party, are strongly opposed to the idea.
As the UK begins to unlock, it may be that some kind of health passport is a necessary price to pay for relative freedom. There are certainly lessons to be learned from Israel, and indeed from other countries developing their own systems (South Korea plans to use blockchain technology in its programme).
But beyond the practical challenges of introducing vaccine passports, it is the controversial issues – most notably the potentially exclusionary nature of a certificate system – that the government must contend with if any rollout is to be successful.