News COVID vaccine certificates and health passes for travel: your questions answered

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COVID vaccine certificates and health passes for travel: your questions answered

We know that travel is especially difficult right now. But alongside the latest COVID-19 travel advice and updates, we want to continue to inspire you with new travel content so that when the world opens its doors again, you'll be ready.

This page was last updated on 18 March 2021. To our knowledge, the information on this page was correct at the time of publication. For further, up-to-date information, please visit https://www.gov.uk/guidance/travel-advice-novel-coronavirus.

What are COVID vaccine certificates? How are they different from vaccine passports? What’s a health pass? And how will all of these affect travellers? This is a hot topic, and we have listed the latest information below – but bear in mind that this is a rapidly changing situation, and official guidance may change quickly, so be sure to check your local government’s advice prior to booking or planning travel. 

What are COVID vaccine certificates for travel?

COVID vaccine certificates are being proposed as a way to open up travel.

A COVID vaccine certificate is physical or digital proof that you have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

A few countries have indicated that once the UK lockdown has been lifted and foreign travel is permitted again, they will accept British holidaymakers if they can show proof that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Around the world, inbound travellers already have to show proof of vaccination against some other diseases to enter certain countries. For example, many countries in Africa require travellers to show proof of vaccination against yellow fever before they are allowed to enter. While it is possible that comparable requirements could be put in place for COVID-19, no arrangements have been made for such a system at the time of writing.

How are COVID vaccine certificates different from vaccine passports?

Vaccine certificates could enable travel to some countries.

A COVID vaccine certificate – proof that you have been immunised against COVID-19 – is different from the idea of vaccine passports, also referred to as ‘immunity passports’.

Vaccine ‘passports’ have been proposed as a way to lift domestic COVID restrictions more quickly. The name is a bit misleading, since these ‘passports’ would contain all the information about the vaccinations you’ve had throughout your life and wouldn’t necessarily be used for international travel – rather for entry to big domestic events. It’s more helpful to talk about vaccine certificates when it comes to travel, as these are more likely to operate like, for example, the pre-existing yellow fever certificate.

The idea of a vaccine passport is also controversial, because the COVID vaccine is not mandatory, and some people cannot or do not want to receive the vaccine. A petition calling on the government not to roll out vaccine passports had received nearly 300,000 signatures at the time of writing, and was discussed in parliament on 15 March.

Organisations like the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) believe that one-time-use health passes are the way forward.

“It will take a significant amount of time to vaccinate the global population, particularly those in less advanced countries, or in different age groups, therefore we should not discriminate against those who wish to travel but have not been vaccinated,” reads a statement from the WTTC, which recommends health passes alongside testing and hygiene measures.

“Testing for non-vaccinated travellers, along with mandatory mask wearing and enhanced health and hygiene protocols, would allow the safe resumption on international travel [and] avoid the risk of transmission.”

How would I get a COVID vaccine certification?

At the moment, we don’t know whether or not the UK will roll out vaccine certificates, and there is much debate around the sensitivities involved in mandating a vaccine certification programme – some critics cite potential privacy issues with the collection of personal data, as well as the ethics of making vaccine certification mandatory when not everyone in the population is able or willing to get a vaccination. It’s best to keep an eye on the government’s official advice while the debate is ongoing.

At the time of writing, it has not been decided exactly what form an official UK COVID vaccine certificate could take.

In the UK, some people received a card at the time of their COVID vaccination with details on the vaccination and the time it was given. However, this card cannot be used as proof of vaccination.

What is a health pass?

Health passes could be used to store health information for travellers.

The World Travel and Tourism Council makes a clear distinction between health passes (also called digital travel passes) and health passports. A health or travel pass records certain information – such as COVID test results or potentially a COVID vaccination – with little other personal data. The results are usually recorded digitally, and a health pass can expire after the results are out of date.

A health passport, on the other hand, records all of the person’s health data, including information on disabilities, allergies and various vaccinations. In practice, however, the terms health pass and health passport are often used interchangeably.

Who or what companies are providing health passes?

A number of different companies and organisations are offering health passes to record COVID-19 tests and vaccinations. Some of the main examples are given below.

Digital Green Certificate

The EU has proposed a health pass called the Digital Green Certificate or Green Pass, which will provide evidence that a traveller has been vaccinated against, recovered from or tested negatively for COVID-19. It’s designed for all EU member states and the EU wants it to be introduced this summer, with a QR code to be scanned at border control. It’s not yet clear where the passes would be issued from, and whether the UK will participate in the scheme.

CommonPass

CommonPass is an app developed by a non-profit public trust called The Commons Project in conjunction with the World Economic Forum. It’s been involved in trials at London Heathrow airport and with travel brands around the world, and is already downloadable in the iOS App Store and Google Play Store.

The idea behind CommonPass is that the app can store all of your health data, including COVID tests and vaccination records. Then the app can generate a QR code that can be scanned at border control to verify you have satisfied the criteria to enter the country, a bit like a digital boarding pass.

ICC AOKpass

The ICC AOKpass is a similar app to CommonPass. It securely stores your medical records using blockchain technology, and your health information is saved locally on your phone rather than in a central database. It’s being developed by a private company based in Singapore and is backed by the World Tourism Organisation of the United Nations.

IATA Travel Pass

The IATA Travel Pass is being developed by the International Air Transport Association, and it is broadly similar to CommonPass and ICC AOKpass. As with the others, the aim is to securely store information on vaccinations and tests, and provide it in an easily readable format. It is currently being trialled on several airlines, including Singapore Airlines, ANA and Qantas.

VeriFLY

Daon, headquartered in the US, has developed VeriFLY as a way to store necessary travel documents in one app, including COVID tests. VeriFLY is currently being trialled on transatlantic British Airways flights to the United States and on some American Airlines international routes.

Will introducing vaccine certification and/or health passes open up travel faster?

Many people are looking forward to travelling again to meet loved ones.

This is the million dollar question, and the reason behind the global debate on vaccine certificates in the first place.

At the moment, it’s impossible to say. COVID vaccine certification has the potential to allow foreign travel to recommence to countries that say they will welcome visitors who can prove they have been vaccinated, where they would otherwise be closed to foreign visitors or require a period of quarantine. This is assuming that vaccine certifications operate similarly to, for example, the yellow fever certificate. But we don’t yet know what form vaccine certification could take – or whether the UK will implement them at all. At the moment the UK is focusing on COVID-safe strategies such as an isolation period on arrival, stringent testing and hotel quarantine from red list countries. Whether vaccine certification becomes part of the equation remains to be seen.

Cyprus was the first EU country to say it would potentially abolish quarantine requirements for travellers who can prove that they have received a COVID vaccine, and other countries such as Greece and Thailand are looking into the possibility of restriction-free travel for vaccinated people. But such restriction-free travel is hypothetical until international agreements can be made on what constitutes proof of vaccination.

What are the current challenges?

COVID vaccine certificates are mostly hypothetical at the moment – Iceland is one of the few countries to have actually started issuing COVID vaccine certificates to people who have received two doses of the vaccine. Israel has also rolled out a ‘green pass’, which acts as a sort of entry pass for locations or activities for people vaccinated against COVID-19 or those who have recovered from it. It will take some time for countries to decide how, when and if to issue COVID vaccine certificates, and also to decide on which certificates to recognise from other countries.

There is also the problem of fragmentation, particularly with regards to health passes: airlines, countries and travel organisations will have to agree on common standards and practices. Interoperability, which means the ability for this type of information to be accessible via various solutions, is a common discussion point in the industry. Otherwise, we could end up with a situation in which some health passes are acceptable on some airlines but not on others.

Finally, there are a number of ethical concerns tied up with vaccine certificates and health passes. Some have raised privacy concerns over the sharing of health data through apps, and others are worried that the whole idea of only permitting travel for people who have been vaccinated is discriminatory.

It’s a complex and challenging issue, and the situation is changing all the time, but hopefully this article has helped to clarify some of your burning questions.

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