What’s the deal with vaccine passports?

Walking through the streets of Tel Aviv in Israel, New York Times correspondent Isabel Kershner paints a picture of a vibrant city, where concertgoers are buzzing with the excitement of living in a potentially post-pandemic world.

“The audience was confined to their socially distanced seats, dancing in place and singing along through their masks. But the atmosphere was exuberant and it confirmed my status as a member of a new privileged class: the fully vaccinated,” she writes in her article ‘My Life in Israel’s Brave New Post-Pandemic Future’.

Israel is demonstrating to the rest of the world what a new normal might look like after the pandemic, having introduced a Green Pass – a digital document downloaded onto someone’s phone that serves as proof of vaccination. This is an Israeli resident’s ticket to almost everything: restaurants, hotels, gyms, concerts, sporting and religious events. In almost all places where you are mixing with the public, you’re required to show your Green Pass.

While this may seem like an ideal situation – the fully vaccinated only associating with each other – the high number of things a Green Pass allows or forbids you to do is worrying for Dave Parry, Professor of Engineering, Computer and Mathematical Sciences at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT).

“The owner of a business or a public space could make any rules they feel like and say, ‘well, you know, you’ve got the perfect right to come if you do that, but if you don’t, we have the perfect right to exclude you’ – so we are trying to stop them using this as some sort of control mechanism,” he says.

With the recent opening of the Trans-Tasman bubble, in which Australians and New Zealanders have the option to travel between countries without having to isolate, the idea behind the Green Pass could be hitting our own shores in the form of what’s being described as a vaccine passport.

Professor of Philosophy at the University of Auckland, Tim Dare, believes Australia’s vaccine passport will not be as extensive as the Green Pass.

“I think the most likely arrangement will be that either the two governments will agree on some set of protocols which will set out some conditions that you need to satisfy in order to get a passport. So you will need to be vaccinated, have [one] of an agreed list of vaccines, you will have to have a negative test within a certain period, and probably it will be some kind of digital app on a phone.”

The International Air Travel Association (IATA) are currently developing a digital pass that would essentially work as a vaccine passport, allowing travellers to store verified certifications required in terms of COVID-19, like proof of tests or vaccinations. It is currently being trialed by some select airlines, including Air New Zealand.

Coming from a background in disaster e-health, Parry explains why having documentation that authorities know to be accurate is important in situations like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A pandemic is a disaster, and basically a disaster is a situation where the normal practice doesn’t work anymore,” he says.

“Having a secure system that you can verify is actually correct, means then that the people who are making decisions in disasters can save time because they don’t have to confirm things, they can just go away and say, ‘Right, I’ve got this information now, I know it’s correct, I can do something about it’.”

But while vaccine passports sound like the key to international travel in the future as the world navigates a new post-pandemic normal, the evidence isn’t as clear cut as it may appear.

Researchers from the University of Oxford conducted a study on the AstraZeneca vaccine earlier this year, and found that while there was a 67 percent reduction in positive swabs from people who had received a single dose of the vaccine, meaning they wouldn’t get sick themselves, they couldn’t say for certain whether those people could still potentially be carrying the disease and transmit it to others.

This makes Dare question what the point of having a vaccine passport would be since the extent of the vaccines’ effectiveness is uncertain, other than that they prevent serious illness or hospitalisation in those vaccinated.

“If you look at the New Zealand [and] Australia bubble, it is based entirely on whether the travellers are coming from a place which we think is COVID-19 free… We are not relying on people having tests, we are relying on the absence of COVID-19 in the places they are coming from,” he says.

“We actually don’t know things like whether people who have had it can get it again, or whether people who have been vaccinated an transmit it, and so until you know all of that sort of stuff, it is not very clear what the vaccination passport is showing, you know, what it’s proof of.”

While Parry understands people’s concerns, he is overall optimistic about the use of vaccine passports in the future.

“My certain view… is that it is really useful to have as much plausible information you can to provide to people who are going to be helping you.”


Phoebe Doyle is a third-year Media and Communications (journalism) student at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter @phoebedoyle_