Updated: Aug 21, 2021
The European Union (EU) announced on Thursday, 1 July, that it has started rolling out digital COVID-19 certificates, making it easier for citizens to travel across member states.
Credit: European Union
The certificates are issued to citizens who have been vaccinated against COVID-19, recently had a negative PCR test or recently recovered from the virus. They serve as official health documents exempting the holders from testing or entering quarantine when crossing international borders.
They also contain a QR code with a digital signature that is unique to the place where the holder’s vaccine information is stored, as BBC points out. This could be a hospital, a test centre or a health authority.
Only EU-authorised COVID-19 vaccines, however, will be recognized by the certificate. These include AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
Citizens can have the certificate displayed on their devices or printed out. When traveling, authorities will scan it to verify the information. The EU set a six-week phase-in period for member states to implement the system, but some have already started using it since plans were first laid out. For example, Germany has reportedly already issued over 5 million certificates since mid-June.
Meanwhile, the UK, which is no longer an EU member state, rolled out its own systems. The National Health Service (NHS) of England, for instance, issues COVID-19 passes to citizens who have been vaccinated, tested negative or recovered from the virus. Citizens of Scotland and Wales can also get a paper version of the pass, as reported by The Verge. The NHS passes are currently not recognised by all EU member states, but that could change as the rollout progresses.
Across the pond, a number of US states have also started implementing their own COVID-19 vaccine certification systems. There’s no unified system yet, but the Biden administration is already discussing plans to streamline how citizens will manage these health credentials.
In Asia, China is thought to be one of the first proponents of issuing COVID-19 certificates to citizens. As early as March, inoculated citizens were already able to secure QR code-based certificates on social media platform WeChat, despite the country only having a 3.65% vaccination rate at that time.
“For a populous country like China, it is especially difficult to vaccinate the whole population or adjust anti-epidemic measures. But China has long since got the epidemic under control, so we could not use virus transmission among the population as a criterion. The most important thing is to complete vaccination,” Lei Ruipeng, a member of the WHO Ethics and COVID-19 Working Group told the Global Times.
“Hopefully a large percentage of China’s population can complete their inoculation procedure and build immunity against COVID-19 by the end of this year, following which China can start issuing immunity passports and promote mutual recognition of the passports with the international community,” added Lei.
China previously stated that it would only facilitate the entry of people who received Chinese vaccines. The country later backtracked on this statement, stating they would consider Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson shots for applications of vaccine passports.
Like all the aforementioned countries, Japan will offer COVID-19 vaccination certificates, which will contain the date of vaccination and its manufacturer. According to Nikkei Asia, paper documents will be issued by municipalities starting this July. They will be printed on a special paper to avoid counterfeiting, but the plan is to eventually make them digital.
Japan has already started discussing the easing of travel requirements with other countries, with people like the special advisor to the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan stating the need for reciprocal measures.
While nothing is final yet, Singapore is also expected to issue digital vaccine passports down the line. The country is currently testing the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Travel Pass for flights to London. Using the IATA Travel Pass involves uploading COVID-19 vaccination credentials and test results to a digital ID, which is accessible and verifiable by governments, airlines and laboratories. Even with the app, however, travelers are still required to present physical copies of their health credentials at the airport at the moment.
Credit: The Straits Times
Angus McDougall, Entrust Regional Vice President for Asia Pacific and Japan, wrote in the Business Times that this might not necessarily be the case moving forward as IATA’s app can lay the groundwork for an all-digital verification system for vaccine certificates.
“Singapore’s aggressive vaccination programme is underway, with the aim of protecting is [sic] population and easing social and travel restrictions,” he wrote. “The Ministry of Health is already exploring ways to issue vaccination certificates, which means that the scenario of the ‘vaccine passport’ coming into play is entirely likely.”
The real opportunity, according to McDougall, is in how it will streamline travel and access to government services while protecting citizens’ digital privacy.
Written by Kyle Chua