After the past year, many in Britain are fed up with three part phrases like ‘hands, face, space’ so it is perhaps inevitable that old holiday mantra of ‘ticket, money, passport’ may now be joined by a fourth term – vaccine passport.
The very idea of a ‘vaccine passport’ is a controversial one. In early February, the UK’s vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi appeared to rule them out, arguing that the idea was ‘discriminatory’.
There are many people who do not want to be vaccinated for a range of reasons, some of them reasonable, others less so; there is also a section of the population who cannot be vaccinated – those with suppressed immune systems for instance.
The government seems very keen to avoid discussion of a ‘vaccine passport’ for this very reason and whenever the term is brought up with government, the very idea is rubbished.
Yet when Boris Johnson announced the UK’s – or at least England’s – roadmap out of lockdown in February, he revealed details of something that looks very like a vaccine passport.
In the document detailing the fine print of the roadmap, the government undertook to carry out a review of ‘COVID-status certification’ in parallel with the plan to open up international travel by – at the earliest – 17 May.
In this detailed document, the government wrote, “Vaccinations could offer a route to that safe and sustainable return. Once more is known about the evidence of vaccines on transmission and their efficacy against new variants, the Government can look to introduce a system to allow vaccinated individuals to travel more freely internationally.”
It said it was working with other countries who have started similar programmes, to lead global efforts to adopt a clear international framework with standards that provide consistency for passengers and industry alike.
It added, “Any such system will take time to implement. It will be heavily dependent on improved scientific understanding about the role vaccination plays in reducing transmission. Introducing such a system also needs to be fair and not unduly disadvantage people who have yet to be offered – or gain access to – a vaccine. That being the case, the Government does not expect this solution to be available quickly, and restrictions like those in place across the world are likely to continue for the near future.”
While we are waiting for this, a number of players in the travel and tourism sector have taken matters into their own hands.
Saga Cruises has unveiled a new policy that will require all guests to have received their full two doses of COVID vaccine at least 14 days before travelling with them.
In November, Qantas boss Alan Joyce told Australia’s Nine Network that the carrier was looking to require proof from those flying with the carrier.
“We will ask people to have a vaccination before they can get on the aircraft… for international visitors coming out and people leaving the country we think that’s a necessity,” he told Nine.
It is unlikely that it will be a universal requirement from airlines. Speaking in an online briefing last week, IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac said, “We don’t believe that vaccines should be a requirement to fly.”
However, he hedged his bets slightly by adding, “But if the EU does implement a vaccine mandate there must be a common standard for this across the EU.”
As it happens, IATA is working on just such a system, called IATA Travel Pass, that will allow passengers to share the result of COVID tests – and proof of vaccination – with airlines, airports and border officials. Several airlines, including Singapore Airlines and British Airways and Iberia parent IAG are already trialling it.
The IATA system is one of many such digital health verification schemes (I didn’t say vaccine passport, OK?). Then there’s CommonPass, the ICC AOKpass and many others, all hoping to be the adopted standard.
Ultimately, it may not be the UK government that makes the decision about ‘vaccine passports’ or otherwise.
IATA’s de Juniac added, “It is governments, not airlines, that will decide what travellers need to enter their country.”
And a number of governments are making their plans clear.
Last week, Cyprus and Portugal said they would permit entry to British tourists who had been fully vaccinated from May, even though British travellers will be unable to travel until at least 17 May.
Back in February, Greece and Israel said they would allow residents of the two countries who had a vaccination certificate to be able to travel freely between the two countries without having to enter quarantine.
Estonia, meanwhile, is working with the WHO on an electronic vaccine passport.
Other destinations desperate for the tourist pound look certain to follow suit and some in the travel industry believe that proof of vaccine will be necessary, at least in the short term.
Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of the Advantage Travel Partnership, said, “In the short term, proof of vaccination or a negative test prior to arrival in destination is likely to be our passport for traveling this summer. We have already seen destinations such as Greece and Spain saying they will welcome Brits, subject to the status of the pandemic and with holidaymakers being required to show proof of vaccine or a recent negative test.”
She added, “Travelling is likely to remain complex for some time and with the vaccine rollout continuing at pace, confidence in the ability to take holidays this summer is also growing, alongside the importance of booking through a professional, human travel agent to help navigate the complexities that are likely to be with us for some time.”
The tourism sector may need to come up with a plan sooner rather than later.
Whenever travel restrictions have been relaxed over the past year, the rush to book has been welcome news to struggling travel companies, only to have borders slam shut quickly when COVID rears its ugly, mutated head again.
Yet a survey this week by IATA of 4,700 travellers from around the world showed growing confidence in a return to travel, with 57 per cent of those surveyed saying they planned to travel within two months of COVID coming under control – an increase from 49 per cent when asked the same question in last September.