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Explainer: Why is the UK dithering over whether to use Covid passports, and how does it affect Ireland?

Covid passports are vaccine passports by a different name, at worst, and at best – a quick ticket back to normality.

New York's 'Excelsior Pass' app, a digital pass that people can use to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test.
New York's 'Excelsior Pass' app, a digital pass that people can use to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test.
Image: AP/PA Images

AS THE ROLLOUT of Covid-19 vaccines continues, the next phase in the pandemic will be whether to use ‘vaccine passports’ or ‘Covid passports’ to begin opening societies back up while the rollout continues.

In the UK, its vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi has said that if Covid passports are to be used, they would be rolled out well after 17 May.

They also won’t be required for outdoor dining or non essential retail, yet - Zahawi has said that the main idea behind Covid passports is to allow international travel.

But over 70 MPs have said that they are against the idea of Covid passports, including over 40 Tory MPs. Labour leader Keir Starmer has said that the “British instinct” will be against the introduction of vaccine passports for venues such as pubs, and called the current state of play on vaccine passports “a complete mess”.

As of now, Covid passports are only part of a series of trials to take place across England between now and mid May to test various Covid measures.

The events that will pilot Covid passports will include the World Snooker Championship in Sheffield, the FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium, and possibly the Brit Awards.

Foreshadowing how complex the issue would become, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last month that vaccine passports “raise all sorts of issues” – but also added that certificates enabling international travel “will be a feature of our life in the future”.

What’s the problem?

virus-outbreak New York's 'Excelsior Pass' app, a digital pass that people can use to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test. Source: AP/PA Images

Last month, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties wrote a letter to the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, and Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly.

The ICCL raised concerns about the EU’s proposal for Digital Green Certificates, which would allow people who are fully vaccinated, who have received a negative Covid-19 test, or who have developed natural immunity through having Covid-19 to travel around the EU once again.

Acknowledging the danger of Covid transmission, it said that it was still “concerned that a digital immunity or vaccination passport may present unjustified interference with the right to non-discrimination, right to freedom of movement, right to privacy, right to equality and right to bodily integrity”.

It also raised its concerns that a limited supply of vaccines in the EU posed, concerns with citizens’ right to privacy, and concerns about when such a system requiring a Covid passport would end:

In addition, like all surveillance systems, a vaccine passport system will be extremely difficult to roll back once introduced. With such a system leading to the collection and retention of significant amounts of special category health data, under Article 9 of the GDPR, such a move could set an extraordinary precedent for wider migration and border controls concerning people’s health status.

“Such systems of health surveillance must also be considered with the worst authoritarian leader imaginable in mind,” it said.

Last month, six of Ireland’s 13 MEPs voted against an “urgency” proposal to fasttrack a vote that would allow EU Covid passports to be introduced more quickly – but without committee scrutiny.

Concerns about the proposal vary, but include: a Covid passport being a version of mandatory vaccination, particularly where access to Covid-19 tests is limited. 

So – what about Ireland?

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has suggested that there will be greater freedoms afforded to those who are fully vaccinated – already two people from two separate households who are fully vaccinated can meet indoors without masks or social distancing.

It’s possible that these ‘bonuses’ associated with being vaccinated could be the beginning of what will eventually become a Covid passport. On 28 April, the European Parliament is to vote on whether to introduce Digital Green Certificates to allow for travel around the EU.

Separate to travel, a version of this could be rolled out to allow for non-masked, non-socially distanced gatherings indoors at pubs, restaurants, or other venues.

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It is understood that vaccine passports or ‘green certs’ are under consideration at government level when it comes to reopening hospitality.

However, sources were quick to point out that it could be the case of there being multiple options available – such as someone having a vaccination cert, or someone having to present a negative antigen test – for people that are not vaccinated.

While it is very early days in terms of international travel, it is understood that the government is in favour of countries offering a lot of flexibility, such as an option of presenting a vaccination cert plus a negative antigen test, or just vaccination proof, or an antigen test on its own.

Pádraig Cribben of the Vintners Federation of Ireland told The Journal that when this issue of Covid passports was discussed with the Government “some time ago”, the impression they got was that “it would be a major investment for a very short input and it wasn’t worth being pursued”.

“I don’t know whether that has changed or not,” he said.

“We would look at anything that would facilitate the early opening of hospitality. What facilitates the early opening of hospitality, what’s easy to administrate – we’re prepared to look at.”

When asked whether some pubs might request proof of vaccination from customers even if the Government doesn’t, Cribben said: “If it’s not going to affect the conditions under which you can open, I don’t see that happening.”

He asked the Government to give them a heads up of whether they will be required, as that will mean pubs will need to prepare.

“It’s not as simple as turning on a light switch: brewers are not brewing, it takes time to get the product in the marketplace, beer lines need to get cleaned. All of this takes time.”

- with reporting from Christina Finn.

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