Plans for Covid-19 vaccine passports may stoke intergenerational divides

Why Israel's introduction of vaccine certificates could prove difficult to emulate.

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Israel plans on Sunday 7 March to open several sectors of the hospitality industry, including restaurants, hotels and conferences, to people who can use a so-called “green passport” to prove they have been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19. Several other categories of venue, such as gyms, have been open for green passport holders since last week. 

The document, issued by the health ministry, is one of the first systems of vaccine passports anywhere in the world, granting vaccinated people more rights than the unvaccinated. It is issued a week after someone has received a second dose of a Covid-19 vaccine and is valid for six months. Vaccination is not compulsory in Israel, but life will be more difficult for those who choose not to have it; for example, they will be required to be tested before going to certain places open to those holding green passports. 

Vaccination certificates, in some form, appear virtually inevitable as immunisation programmes advance around the world. Although it is politically tricky for some governments, many businesses will likely begin to demand proof of vaccination from their clients when they reopen. Whether that proof is a mixture of various certificates provided by doctors or private firms or a passport issued by the state will depend on whether governments are prepared to risk aggravating those who have not or will not opt to have the vaccine. 

Because Israel’s vaccination programme is advancing faster than any other – one in two Israelis have now received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to health ministry data – conversations about vaccine certificates are perhaps less controversial than in other countries. The inconvenience of not holding a green passport because you are low down on the priority list, for example, will not be a problem for long. 

The situation is different in places where vaccination programmes are being rolled out at a slower pace. In Europe, for instance, the EU looks likely to agree on a format for a continent-wide vaccination certificate in the coming weeks, spearheaded by Greece, which wants the documents in place for the summer tourism season. But the glacial pace of the EU’s vaccination programme means that once such certificates exist, there is the prospect that young people – still months from being offered the vaccine – will have fewer freedoms than their elders.

[See also: International coronaviurs vaccine tracker]

Then there is the question of how to deal with people who are offered a vaccine, but who refuse to take it. There is a qualitative difference between someone who has been given the option of having a vaccine, and someone who has not. (The small number of people who cannot take a vaccine for medical reasons is an additional complication.)

For young people, who have already been hard hit by the effects of a virus that poses little health risk to them personally, vaccine certificates may be a difficult sell. Watching older people go to restaurants or on foreign holidays with greater ease than others might push the unvaccinated to break the rules on gatherings and parties. That, in turn, would accelerate the spread of the virus among unvaccinated groups.

Vaccine passports may be necessary, and likely inevitable, but that does not mean they’re an uncontroversial issue. Digital certificates will raise privacy and verification issues; governments should tread carefully when implementing them. They should also consider ways to compensate young people who have sacrificed a lot during the pandemic. The former British universities minister David Willetts, for instance, has argued that taxes on property could be hiked to help redress the intergenerational balance. As the world recovers from the Covid-19 crisis, it would be a mistake to ignore the interests of the young. 

[See also: How Covid-19 could limit travel for years beyond the crisis]

Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.

He co-hosts our weekly global affairs podcast, World Review.

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