As countries rush to vaccinate their populations against the coronavirus, schemes to verify immunity status — known as “vaccine passports” — are taking off as a path back to normal life, with Greece pitching an EU-wide scheme.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told the European Commission that it was “urgent to adopt a common understanding on how a vaccination certificate should be structured so as to be accepted in all Member States,” according to a letter seen by POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook.
But in Europe, where vaccinations have gotten off to a grinding start, proposals for certification or vaccine passport schemes are already butting up against a familiar obstacle: privacy.
Opponents to the schemes argue that such passports would endanger the fundamental rights of Europeans by dividing people into categories according to health status, denying access to all manner of public services to the non-vaccinated and opening the door to further health tracking.
The introduction of vaccine passports “poses essential questions for the protection of data privacy and human rights,” said Anna Beduschi, an academic from Exeter University. Passports could “create a new distinction between individuals based on their health status, which can then be used to determine the degree of freedoms and rights they may enjoy,” she added.
Mitsotakis appeared to try to strike a balance to take account of those concerns. In his letter, he said that Greece is “not going to make vaccination compulsory or a prerequisite for travel” — but he also stated that “persons who have been vaccinated should be free to travel.”
The idea of immunity certification is gaining ground in some corners of the EU, where more than half a million people in the bloc have died with COVID-19, and hundreds of millions more face new restrictions as the pandemic’s second wave rips across the Continent.
In October, Estonia signed an agreement with the World Health Organization to develop a digital immunization certificate that would allow for cross-border exchange of vaccination data. This week, the Estonian PM Jüri Ratas said he had invited Finland to take part in the scheme too.
In Hungary, the government said it could require visitors to show their vaccination status to gain access to the country via an app showing immunity to COVID-19. “The need for citizens to provide proof that they have gained protection against the coronavirus is increasing all over the world,” a government spokesperson said.
Visitors in Iceland are exempt from testing and quarantine requirements if they can show a certificate proving infection and recovery from COVID-19 since December 10 (though a government spokesperson said it was “misleading” to speak of the scheme as a form of vaccine passport).
Belgium is in favor of a “verifiable COVID-19 vaccination certificate” on an EU or even global level.
And in recent weeks, the Spanish government indicated it would implement an inverted sort of vaccine passport, by registering those who refused the vaccine and sharing the data with “other European partners. (It promised that all data would be pseudonymized — which means removing key identifiers — and that it would only take note of the reasoning given by those who turn down the vaccine at appointments, which will be voluntary.)
Such moves follow in the footsteps of Israel, which has led the pack in inoculating its population. The country has rolled out an app that would allow vaccinated people to enter cultural and sports events as well as travel abroad without having to quarantine.
They also chime with moves by countries — and companies — to require proof of a negative coronavirus test or immunity. Australia’s Qantas airline said it plans to require proof of vaccination to board a plane, while Ryanair’s new ad campaign says, “jab and go“. A host of organizations including the tech giant IBM and airline lobby International Air Transport Association are working on how such systems would work in practice, though there has also been high-level opposition to the idea within the travel industry.
But other EU countries are clearly opposed. France, whose populations counts a high number of vaccine skeptics, has ruled out the prospect of vaccine passports despite the interest of several prominent health professionals.
They may be wary of reactions from watchdogs, privacy campaigners and academics who are already sounding the alarm over the trade offs of these types of initiatives could entail.
A report in 2020 by the AI research body the Ada Lovelace Institute said immunity passports — a broader concept that would signal immunity of any sort, including vaccination — would “pose extremely high risks in terms of social cohesion, discrimination, exclusion and vulnerability.”
Speaking to POLITICO at the time, the institute’s director Carly Kind said that using such a scheme could mean immunity becoming a protected characteristic like ethnicity or race. “We need to think about how to put in place a structure to ensure that discrimination on the basis of that characteristic isn’t enabled,” Kind said.
Despite Belgium’s support for such a scheme, its own data regulator warned against having a vaccination database, saying that the stated purpose for storing the data and how its shared are vague, and the authorities would keep that data for too long. The database “undoubtedly constitutes considerable interference in the right to protection of personal data,” the regulator said.
France has a similar plan, but with limits on how long that data is stored and specifying which authorities can access it, its data protection regulator believes it can adhere to privacy rules.
Last year, the EU’s data protection chief Wojciech Wiewiórowski called the idea of an immunity passport “extreme” and he has repeatedly expressed alarm at the idea.
“Even the name disgusts me a little bit,” he said at an event.
Ashleigh Furlong and Dana Regev contributed reporting.
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As Greece touts EU vaccine passports, privacy champions warn of risks The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Politico.