Vaccine passports: the magic bullet for summer holidays or a moral headache?

Helen Coffey,Cathy Adams,Simon Calder
Friday 19 February 2021 16:56 GMT

The notion of the introduction of vaccine passports is a complex one, whether to facilitate activities within the UK or international travel.

This week has brought some lively debate on the topic. Experts concluded in a report published in the Royal Society that they are “feasible” but problematic; while vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said that the government would work to facilitate official certification should international travellers need them.

Several travel firms, including aviation trade body Iata, are working on their own versions in order to unlock travel.

Their proposed introduction raises serious ethical and logistical questions.

Here, The Independent’s travel desk gives their opinion on whether or not they should be rolled out.

Helen Coffey: Why we shouldn’t look to them as the magic bullet

In theory, vaccine passports are a wonderful idea for travel. Had your jab? Off you go! (In fact, this is near identical to the wording in Ryanair’s ill-fated post-Christmas ad campaign, now banned for being misleading.)

Just imagine a whole world of possibilities suddenly reopening up before you after a year of staying put: from Greece to Georgia, Iceland to Estonia. And, in fact, those countries are some of the first to have declared that those who prove they’ve had both doses may be able to forgo quarantine and stroll across the border. Thank goodness! Shouldn’t we get out there again and forget this nasty Covid business ever happened?

While that would indeed be lovely, the reason I urge caution, rather than a full-throated embrace of the “passport” concept, is two-fold. Firstly, and most importantly, it seems far too early to say whether being vaccinated prevents you from carrying and transmitting the virus. We already have several new variants that have sprung up – ones that are more infectious, that may be different enough to the original that they could bypass the antibodies created during previous infection or inoculation.

The science on this stuff is being rewritten all the time as we learn more – just last week, suggestions arose that the Kent variant could be more transmissible because it has a shorter incubation period, after a quarantine hotel outbreak in Melbourne, Australia, triggered a five-day circuit-breaker lockdown in Victoria.

Explaining the decision, the state’s premier, Daniel Andrews, said: “The time between exposure, incubation, symptoms and testing positive is rapidly shortening. So much so, that even secondary close contacts are potentially infectious within that 48-hour window.” (Andrews’ claims have yet to be backed up by a scientific study but experts have said the theory is “plausible”.)

The vaccine rollout has been incredibly rapid in the UK and the signs are good – but we are still so near the beginning of this journey, obstructed at every turn by unknowns. Unknowns like: what might future mutations look like? Will those who’ve been vaccinated already need a booster jab come autumn? Does prior infection and vaccination guarantee that you can’t be a carrier, even a symptomless one?

These are not nice-to-knows; they are essential-to-knows. Particularly if we’re to start jetting off again indiscriminately, to countries that may not have had the benefit of an enviably speedy vaccine rollout. It feels, to put it bluntly, a mite selfish to go striding forth in search of sea or sun or adventure without first knowing whether you might be merrily infecting people as you go.

So yes, information, or lack thereof, makes me wary. But so too does the two-tier system which the vaccine passport would inevitably create. For close to a year, young people with no underlying health conditions have been told to stay at home to save lives. They have had to forgo busy social lives, work lives, even sex lives, in order to keep the most vulnerable in our society safe, despite the fact that their experience of the virus if caught is unlikely to be severe. Of course that sacrifice was worth it. Of course it was. But for them to now stand witness as the vaccinated whizz off to sunnier climes while they remain stranded on this sceptred isle… well, it’s not going to do anything to heal the nation’s generational divide, that’s for sure.

It’s not true of everyone by any means – but during the first lockdown there seemed to be a tension-sparking trend of so-called “boomers”, deep in retirement and on generous pensions, asking what all the youngsters were complaining about from their four-bedroom farmhouses with an acre of land. Meanwhile, their younger counterparts struggled to juggle home-schooling and full-time work from cramped flats or inconvenient houseshares with no outdoor space, trying to survive a salary cut while on the furlough scheme or losing their livelihood altogether. I’m not saying people my mum’s age don’t deserve holidays. But I’m not sure it will do much for morale if Gen Xers, millennials and the Gen Zs get left behind for another 10 months.

I hate to feel like I’m pouring cold water on the party – I take no pleasure in indefinitely delaying the moment I can pack a bag and discover somewhere new, one of the true joys of life. And I know the travel industry is fighting for its life right now. But so are the 17,000 people in England currently hospitalised with Covid-19. Out of respect for them, it only seems right that we delay our gratification until we know more.

Cathy Adams: They could offer the route out of this crisis

As much as I’ve enjoyed walking endlessly around my neighbourhood with yet another takeaway coffee, I can’t be the only one desperate to go somewhere – anywhere. And if a vaccine passport allows me to do that, sign me up as fast as possible.

The thrill of waking up in a new city, with endless neighbourhoods to explore; or checking into a hotel, knowing there’s a decent cocktail behind the bar with your name on it; or walking off the plane being hit by a blast of warm tropical air are some of life’s greatest joys, and some of the many reasons I wanted to work in the travel industry. Now all the things I ache for more than ever.

The idea of “vaccine passports”, which confer advantages such as international travel on the holder, has been mooted ever since the vaccine roll-out began. (For what it’s worth, “Passports” is slightly misleading – they’re likely to be an app, of the sort currently being designed by the aviation trade body Iata, or something that integrates with your smartphone.)

A few countries have already announced their intention to roll them out for their citizens, including Bahrain and Denmark, in order to give the economy a giant shot in the arm (pun intended). More than two million jobs depend on travel and tourism in the UK, and everyone in the industry, from tour operators to airlines, is desperate to get moving again – safely.

As Helen argues, there are still many unknowns: about how the vaccine passports might work, whether somebody’s most personal information would be stored safely and how an international standard might be reached. There’s also the moral question of whether we should be travelling in a pandemic at all, an argument that deserves more words than I can give here.

The bottom line for me is this. After a year being broadly stationary, I’m in favour of anything that gets us travelling safely again. And if that’s a vaccine passport, bring it on. They’re a great incentive to encourage people to get vaccinated, even though I realise as a healthy thirty-something I’ll be bottom of the queue.

After all, I’m already vaccinated up to the eyeballs, with everything from typhoid and yellow fever to two different kinds of hepatitis and Japanese encephalitis, which has allowed me to safely travel to countries like India, Cambodia and Tanzania over the years. Checking the NHS Fit For Travel website before any trip was just something else I did, in the same way I might pack swimwear or sun cream.

As vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi conceded a few days ago, what’s the difference between presenting a certificate showing you’ve been vaccinated against Covid and a yellow fever certificate, which is required for entry into some African countries and northern Brazil)?

I do understand the criticism. In a perfect world, it isn’t fair that vaccinated travellers can jump the queue and gain entry to a growing list of countries including the Seychelles, Romania, Estonia and Poland without having to quarantine, while the young and healthy languish at home. The difference with the yellow fever jab comparison is that I could simply stump up the cash, whereas for the Pfizer or AstraZeneca liquid gold, there’s no chance of skipping the queue.

But then: has travel ever been fair? It’s always been a middle class affliction, our obsession with “ticking off” bucket list experiences often vastly at odds with the lives of people in the countries we’re actually visiting. Travel is not a right, it’s a privilege. And in a post-Covid world, travel will remain the preserve of the wealthy, with or without a vaccine passport, given we’ll probably still need to stump up £150 each way for pre-departure Covid testing.

Perhaps Greece’s two-tiered approach could hold the key for unlocking international travel. Its tourism minister, Haris Theoharis, said this week that the country was in discussions with the UK government to allow vaccinated Brits quarantine-free travel to Greece. As for everyone else, they’ll need to show a pre-departure negative Covid test.

Not that I’ll have long to wait, anyway. According to the current timeline, all UK adults will have received two Covid jabs by the end of August. There’s still hope for my summer holiday.

Greece said it was in discussions with the UK to allow entry to vaccinated Brits

Simon Calder: Vaccine certificates will play a significant role in travel this year

Much as I have enjoyed my colleagues’ articulate discussion on the ethics of a “have vaccine, will travel” phenomenon, may I suggest that we all get used to the idea?

Yes, the concept of “immunotourism” triggers serious concerns about an individual’s right to choose whether or not to accept medical treatment – and not to face discrimination as a result of that decision. Yet it is happening regardless.

One reason ministers have been tying themselves in semantic knots trying to define a coherent policy on the subject is because the government has, once again, been talking at cross purposes.

Two weeks ago, the vaccines minister stridently rejected the very notion of a vaccine passport, before adding something to the effect of, “Oh, if you need something to show you have had the jabs so you can go abroad, just ask your GP”.

Denying British citizens access to services in the UK, whether a match at Old Trafford or a night at the opera, because they have not been vaccinated feels profoundly wrong.

But as anyone who has been censured for crossing the road without waiting for a green light in Germany or inadvertently disrespecting the flag in many nations will understand, foreign countries can impose whatever rules they like on visitors.

As nations across Europe and the world seek to rescue what is left of their tourism economy while simultaneously seeking to minimise harm to their people, offering fast-track access to vaccinees looks a reasonable strategy for boosting arrivals without adding significantly to risk.

Once British holidaymakers are able to travel once more, I don’t initially expect to see many “no jab, no entry” policies in Europe. As in the case of Greece, a vaccination certificate will simply remove some of the complications of travel in the coronavirus era.

“Jab Or Test” (JOT) will be the order of the day in the Mediterranean this summer.

Longer term and further afield, those options may not apply. It looks very likely that Australia will demand proof that you have been vaccinated before granting you access – and that Qantas, the national airline, will align its policy.

The carrier’s chief marketing officer told a tourism conference in Sydney this week that 90 per cent of prospective passengers said they would board a flight only if they knew everyone onboard had been vaccinated.

I think that expression of concern will dwindle, as will the fears evident in a YouGov survey which indicated only one in four Brits would travel abroad without being vaccinated.

This week UK airline bosses concurred that they would not impose a “no job, no jab” policy for their staff, at a time when other carriers such as United and Etihad are insisting on vaccinations.

With concerns about fair employment practices and a duty of care to passengers, the intersection of travel and inoculation is a legal, logistical and philosophical nightmare. But I predict that travel-starved Brits will navigate their way through the ethical tangle in search of that elusive dream holiday.

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