Covid passports are a way of proving that a person has been vaccinated against (or in some cases recovered from or tested negative for) Covid-19. They have also been described as “vaccine passports” and “immunity certificates”, while the UK government calls them “COVID status certification”.
Covid passports were first discussed in early 2021 as vaccines were initially being rolled out as a way to allow vaccinated people to move about more freely and potentially engage more safely in activities like travelling abroad, working in settings where people are at high risk, or visiting a pub.
Some countries, like Israel, introduced schemes quickly. But most chose not to introduce a domestic programme before they had offered vaccinations to all adults. Several countries introduced schemes determining access to certain venues and events and in some cases public transport, workplaces and education during the second half of 2021, but many are now removing mandatory covid pass requirements, including the UK.
Most Covid passports have been mobile phone apps that show a QR code or vaccine certificate. Some have incorporated testing to minimise discrimination against those who have not been, or cannot be, vaccinated.
In most cases, it has also been possible to access a paper alternative to prevent digital exclusion for those without smartphones.
A vaccine certificate for travel, the NHS COVID Pass, was introduced in England on 17 May 2021.
The UK government has gone back and forth on domestic Covid passports. Since 19 July, it has been possible to use the Covid pass in some domestic settings in England, with ‘high-risk’ venues including nightclubs and large events encouraged to use the pass.
The government had initially stated that a vaccine-only Covid pass would become mandatory if ‘sufficient measures’ were not taken to limit infection, but then rapidly announced that it would be required for high-risk settings from the end of September. There were suggestions that the government was using the threat of mandating the Covid pass to push individuals to get vaccinated, without necessarily intending to actually require them.
On 14 September, it U-turned again, however, deciding that mandatory vaccine‑only certification would not be implemented, but that vaccine-only passports would be kept in reserve as part of the government’s ‘Plan B’, which would be introduced if it judged that pressure on the NHS was likely to become unsustainable.
On 8 December, the prime minister announced that the government was introducing Plan B and that, subject to parliamentary approval, the Covid pass would now be mandatory for nightclubs, unseated indoor events with 500 or more attendees, unseated outdoor events with 4,000 or more attendees and any event with 10,000 or more attendees from 15 December.
This was reviewed in January 2022, and since 27 January the Covid Pass is no longer mandatory for venues, although venues and events can still choose to require the Covid Pass as a condition of entry.
The NHS Covid Pass is available through the existing general NHS app (which is different to the NHS COVID-19 contact tracing app). Individuals registered with a GP surgery in England can sign up to the app and click through to a QR code confirming their vaccination status, which is available two weeks after a second vaccine dose. A paper alternative is also available. Both passes are only available automatically to those vaccinated in England, Wales or Scotland (people vaccinated in Scotland must be resident in England), although it is now possible to make an appointment to have a vaccination received overseas added to NHS records.
The domestic pass is available for those aged 18 and over and includes recent negative test results. It previously also included naturally acquired immunity but that was removed when the Plan B measures were brought in. The travel pass is available for those aged 16 and over and only shows vaccination status. Fully vaccinated children aged 12 to 15 years old can now request an NHS Covid pass letter for travel. From 3 February 2022, children aged 13 and over will be able to access a Covid Pass for travel through the app, and those 12 and over will be able to request a PDF online.
The NHS Covid Pass is also available to Welsh residents, while Northern Ireland and Scotland have their own apps.
Both Wales and Scotland required large venues and outdoor events to use Covid passports from October 2021.
Northern Ireland announced that its pass would be mandatory for large venues and events as well as pubs and restaurants in November. This was reduced to only large venues and events in January 2022 and legal requirements for venues to require covid passports were dropped in all three nations in February 2022. As in England venues can still decide to use the Covid pass.
Several countries introduced Covid passport schemes for some venues during 2021 but, as in the UK, many of these schemes have been phased out during the early part of 2022.
The countries that first introduced them, Israel and Denmark, both started to phase their schemes out in summer 2021, before reviving them in the autumn as cases increased again. In Denmark, the scheme was extended to include public transport, restaurants and bars, among other venues. However, in February 2022, both countries again removed the requirement for venues to require Covid passports.
Some EU countries, like France and Italy, had introduced more extensive schemes. France had required some venues with more than 50 people to use its ‘pass sanitaire’ since July. In August this was extended to cafes, restaurants, healthcare settings and long-distance journeys by trains and planes. Italy’s covid passport had been required for all workplaces, indoor public venues, public transport and universities, for example, since 15 October. On 6 December a new super green pass was announced, which was only available to the vaccinated or recovered and was required to enter cinemas, venues, sports events, restaurants and bars.
Both countries have now announced the end of their passport schemes – the French pass vaccinal will no longer be required from 14 March and the Italian green pass from 31 March.
It was initially thought that Covid passports could speed up the return to normal life and increase economic activity with, potentially, a reduced risk of virus transmission and serious illness, while making some people feel safer about attending events or using services and helping venues and businesses that are less able to operate under social distancing.
Evidence on the effects of Covid passports remains limited, however, particularly when it comes to transmission. While cases in Israel fell following the introduction of the Green Pass, it is unclear how much, if any, of that progress was due to the Green Pass system. Leaked analysis from the Cabinet Office’s COVID-19 Taskforce suggested that the UK’s proposed passport programme might reduce overall community transmission by 1–5%.
A number of countries also appear to be using Covid passports partly to incentivise vaccination. Nicola Sturgeon said recently, for example, that the Scottish government had initially excluded testing from its passport scheme in an attempt to drive up vaccination rates.
Whether Covid passports are effective in incentivising vaccination is contested, however. Evidence is still limited. One study found that certification "led to increased vaccinations 20 days prior to implementation, with a lasting effect up to 40 days after". But this was more effective in countries with lower than average vaccine uptake – there was no effect in countries with higher uptake (for example, Germany) or if passports were introduced when vaccines were in limited supply (for example, in Denmark). Uptake increased more in younger age groups, particularly if passes were limited to certain venues (like nightclubs and events).  The Scottish government’s assessment of its passport scheme stated that vaccine uptake had "slightly increased" since its scheme was announced but that it was "not possible to directly attribute rises to the introduction of certification".
When it comes to incentivising vaccination, while the evidence is limited, two other recent studies have suggested that vaccine passports might actually reduce some people’s willingness to get vaccinated in the UK, particularly among certain groups. There is a chance, therefore, that Covid passports could be counterproductive in some cases if the aim is to increase vaccination rates.
As Covid passports are a means to ensure only people who have immunity or have tested negative undertake certain activities, there are also potential ethical implications. Passports could further exacerbate existing inequalities, particularly as vaccine take-up has varied among different groups. Testing is often suggested as a way to mitigate these issues, but access to testing can be variable and the need to test repeatedly could be burdensome.
Beyond the ethical implications there are safety concerns driven by uncertainties about the protection offered by vaccines. Vaccines do not provide perfect protection against transmission, and there is increasing evidence that their effectiveness wanes over time. Allowing a group of vaccinated people to gather, particularly in indoor settings, could still carry health risks. Used in the wrong way, passports could give people a false sense of security. The leaked analysis from the COVID-19 Taskforce also noted that if passports displaced people to pubs and small venues not covered by certification it could increase the risk of transmission between young people and more vulnerable individuals.
Security is another potential issue. Paper certificates are more accessible but easier to fake. Apps can also be vulnerable to fraud – researchers found several flaws in the first version of Israel’s vaccination pass scheme.
Privacy concerns relate to the sensitive health information passports might draw on, raising questions about who has access to that data and how it is protected and used. Critics worry that Covid passports would set a precedent for future erosions of health privacy – for instance, people might be expected to prove they do not have other diseases.
There are also potential technical and enforcement issues. There have been reports of uneven enforcement in some countries, and in Scotland nightclubs reported challenges with anti-social behaviour and finding door staff, while some people have had problems with vaccine records not appearing in the app.
Covid passports also have a potential economic cost to businesses, although this has to be weighed against the cost of alternative restrictions. The leaked Cabinet Office analysis suggests the proposed UK scheme could have a "high impact" on the economy and might exacerbate the supply chain crisis, although it did not provide specific numbers. The Scottish government’s evidence paper suggested that nightclubs covered by their passport scheme had experienced "substantial turnover losses" and that some events had had issues with long waiting times and crowding.
Many countries are requiring some form of covid passport for travel and it seems likely that vaccine certification will play a role in international travel for months and years to come. Domestically, however, covid passports had been required for some venues in all of the four nations but have now been phased out.
The major question remaining is whether mandatory covid passes in England are gone for good or could end up being revived in future if a new variant emerges.
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