While a vaccine passport may sound like the travel equivalent of a golden ticket, there are still some big issues that need to be addressed.

Its been almost a year since Kiwis have been able to jet off on an overseas holiday, after New Zealand closed its borders on March 19, 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic shut down travel around the world.
While there has been a lot of talk about travel bubbles, so far these have failed to inflate. Now vaccines are being touted as the key to restarting international travel, with various efforts underway to create passports” that travellers will be able to use to prove they’ve been vaccinated.
Border workers were the first in New Zealand to be vaccinated against Covid-19, in Auckland on February 20, 2021.
“I think vaccine passports are almost an inevitability at some point in the future and probably the not-too-distant future, I think that’s likely to happen, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told TVNZs Q+A programme on Sunday morning.
But while a vaccine passport may sound like the travel equivalent of a golden ticket, there are still some big issues that need to be addressed. Heres what we know and what we don’t.
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The number one question that needs to be answered before vaccine passports are put to widespread use is, can vaccines actually stop coronavirus transmission?
Until then, the World Health Organisation [WHO] is urging caution. Theyve warned there are still critical unknowns on this point, and for this reason, have advised governments against introducing requirements of proof of vaccination as a condition of entry for travellers.
But if vaccines do prove to be effective in preventing transmission of the virus, University of Otago professor of public health Michael Baker says they have the potential to extend elimination of the virus worldwide, in addition to existing public health measures.
Currently, about a quarter of the worlds population including New Zealand has managed to eliminate the virus through use of public health measures alone.
Now, with vaccination programmes being rolled out around the world, there was a reasonable chance the intensity of the pandemic would be hugely reduced by the end of the year.
Even in the absence of any vaccination requirement for travel, were going to see opening up anyway, Baker said.
Just the sheer force of the power of vaccination combined with public health measures means that already our borders are more secure now that weve immunised border workers. Thats just going to get easier over time.
Once we have more certainty around the vaccines ability to prevent transmission, vaccine passports could serve to open up travel a lot more quickly.
In New Zealands case, you wouldnt necessarily have to wait until the whole population is vaccinated you wouldnt have to wait until the pandemic had been completely controlled, Baker said.
In the transition period, you may be able to allow quarantine-free travel if someone has very good evidence of having been fully vaccinated.
Vaccine passports arent a new concept. Some countries already require proof of certain vaccinations from travellers to prevent the spread of a disease, like the yellow card to show youre vaccinated against yellow fever. This comes in the form of a piece of paper known as the International Certificate of Vaccination and Prophylaxis, and is managed by the World Health Organisation.
An example of a “yellow card” used to show yellow fever vaccination.
But the health passports being developed in response to Covid-19 will look quite different. For one thing, they will take the form of a mobile app. And at this stage, there isnt one definitive passport, with several private-sector and non-government groups racing to come up with their own versions.
It’s important to note that it’s ultimately governments that decide the requirements for travel, and its up to airlines and passengers to comply (although some airlines, like Qantas, have said they will require passengers to prove they have been vaccinated to board their international flights).
The idea behind these apps is that they will store health information, such as Covid-19 test results and vaccine certificates, which can be easily shared with airlines and border authorities.
Air New Zealand is currently trialling the IATA Travel Pass, which is being developed by the International Air Transport Association an industry body representing 290 airlines.
Board of Airlines Representatives of New Zealand executive director Justin Tighe-Umbers says international airlines flying in New Zealand will be geared up to use the app, which promises to be more secure and efficient than current paper processes used to manage health requirement.
The key benefit of the travel pass is that it will only use certificates and test results from certified and validated medical facilities in each country, Tighe-Umbers said.
We want one standard for the global aviation system, that will allow people to travel seamlessly.
But there are concerns that all this is much easier said than done.
The systems that need to be in place to be able to allow a vaccine passport app to query central databases that each Ministry of Health-equivalent around the world holds is non-trivial,” said Andrew Chen, a research fellow with the Koi T Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland.
Its the sort of thing where even coming up with the standard should take years and years. But now they reckon they can do it in six months.
The IATA Travel Pass will store Covid-19 test results and vaccine certificates.
If vaccine passports do enter mainstream use, with Covid-19, the stakes are much higher than with the yellow cards used for yellow fever.
The incentive for fraud is quite high in the current circumstances, he said.
In the Covid-19 context, our tolerance for risk is so low in places like New Zealand, where even one person who has the disease getting through when they shouldnt have could lead to cases.
Because that risk tolerance is so low, we have to be very careful about verifying whether or not somebody has had a vaccine.
Baker agreed there would need to be real quality assurance around the vaccine passports, to prove that the vaccines have been given.
That may be one of the hardest things to get right so all countries are satisfied with that.
Chen said if governments couldn’t be sure the vaccine passports were perfect, border restrictions would likely remain in play.
I think governments will have to get quite granular about who they allow and who they dont allow, he said.
This is all further complicated by there being multiple vaccines, and youre getting different effects if someones had one shot rather than two. It starts to make it really messy.
Its not going to be as simple as, have you had the vaccine or not? Yes youre in, no youre out.
As well as safety concerns, there are also ethical dilemmas around vaccine passports to be considered.
The WHO has also noted that preferential vaccination of travellers could result in inadequate supplies of vaccines for those considered at high risk of Covid-19.
Then there are those who, for whatever reason, can’t get a vaccine. For this group, a vaccine passport could be seen as a form of discrimination especially if its use becomes broader than just travel.
I suspect if the travel industry gets it in place, it might be quite hard to stop it being adopted for other uses, whether officially or de facto, said University of Auckland professor of philosophy Tim Dare.
This could see vaccine passports used to control access to other public venues and sites.
The broader the use of the passport, the more worrying those issues about discrimination are.
Chen agreed that having a vaccine passport solely for use of travel was a different scenario to widespread use of the tool.
Using this to decide who can go into and who cant go into a supermarket would be very bad, he said.
But when it came to travel, he saw two ways of framing the argument.
One is to say having the vaccine passport is actually opening up travel, because its allowing people who have access to travel, he said.
The counter-argument is to say its actually a discriminatory way of shutting down travel. We know some countries are going to get vaccines before others, and some people within those countries will get the vaccines before others.
But, Chen pointed out, governments already discriminate around who can and cant enter countries even without a global pandemic to worry about.
If having a vaccine passport can help increase the confidence of a government that a particular individual is safe to enter the country, thats good for everyone.