After pushing through emergency authorisation and having medical practitioners work through the weekend to roll out the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine at breakneck speed to hospitals across the UK, Britain officially became the first country to deploy the brand-new vaccine – and 90 year old grandmother Margaret Keenan, alongside 81 year old William (‘Bill’) Shakespeare, became its first official recipients at University Hospital Coventry.
Britain’s rapidity in launching its vaccination programme has been hailed as a national triumph by ministers, led by health secretary Matt Hancock, but as Professor Stephen Powis said to the BBC, the distribution of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine should be a “marathon not a sprint”. Of course, given the circumstances, it’s hard to blame anyone for wanting to tear ahead with vaccinations en masse.
The suite of vaccines now coming online are not only meant to protect the global population from infection, but also to act as an ‘open sesame’ allowing for businesses and economic sectors decimated by the pandemic – and for smooth travel across international borders – to start back up. Recent polling of 1,700 Brits has shown a majority already agree only those inoculated by the Covid-19 vaccine should be allowed to fly once it has been widely distributed.
This opinion chimes in with perspectives in Australia, Ireland, and Taiwan, where airlines or government ministers have already indicated they could look to proof of vaccination for those entering and exiting the country. And yet, even with the first people being inoculated this week, there is still no clarity on what kind of health pass will trace these vaccinations and act as proof of inoculation at the national and international levels.
Amidst its eagerness to get vaccines approved and delivered to hospitals, has the Government spared a thought for how it intends to organise what would seem to be an inevitable vaccine passport system?
A yellow card for Downing Street
For the time being, those who receive the jab will be handed a credit-card sized document showing the vaccine name, date, batch number, and number of doses written by hand. The NHS recommends keeping this card in a wallet. The information will not be available digitally, and it is not clear what happens to those who misplace their card or have their wallet stolen. Concerningly, the current NHS system echoes a similar document called the ‘Yellow Card’, used to prove vaccination for yellow fever. Sadly, such a rudimental method doesn’t cut it in 2020; other governments, such as that of Nigeria, have replaced their paper version with an e-card in order to keep up with the times.
Unfortunately, the messaging coming out of Parliament as to a more effective solution has been somewhat confused. The Minister for Covid-19 Vaccine Deployment, Nadhim Zahawi, speculated at the end of November on the deployment of vaccine passports, saying that “we are looking at the technology. And, of course, a way of people being able to inform their GP that they have been vaccinated. But, also, I think you’ll probably find that restaurants and bars and cinemas and other venues, sports venues, will probably also use that system.” Just two days later, cabinet minister Michael Gove declared vaccine passports are not the plan, and that the government is “concentrating on making sure the vaccine is rolled out.”
Of course, in order to re-open a post-Covid world, a system for keeping track of vaccination status may be almost as important as inoculation itself.
This is not to say government should rush the rollout of any subpar documentation system, but it is important to consider whether a retroactive system will be more difficult to put in place further down the line. The numbers of those inoculated with the Covid-19 vaccine will increase at a rapid clip, since the UK has already received enough doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to immunize nearly half a million people in the next months.
Analysts predict that, as research develops, there is a high chance that those vaccinated in the past will require a booster jab. All of this data will require careful documentation, but the NHS’ online medical systems vary from hospital to hospital and are not renowned for their speed or reliability. Any system adopted needs to guarantee personal data privacy; mistrust in the handling of intellectual property by the government was one of the principal reasons for the failure of the track-and-trace app put forward by the NHS.
Experts such as associate professor of law at the University of Exeter, Dr Ana Beduschi, also anticipate potential legal problems with such a system, explaining that “if the restaurant owner wants me to show my vaccination records or Covid test results – even if I consent, as an individual, to have my health data collected, stored, and processed – providers would still need to build data protection into the design of these technologies by default.” The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has also concluded that “immunity certification is theoretically possible, however further data and considerations are needed before any recommendation can be made.”
One of the major steppingstones to the implementation of such technology will clearly be the security of individual users’ sensitive personal data. Fortunately, some digital technology providers using blockchain insist they are already equipped to handle all of these data privacy concerns from the get-go. One option which stands out is the Certus myHealth Pass, which doesn’t link to databases containing personal data, but which can nonetheless be verified at a click by authorities worldwide.
Developed by Swiss company Sicpa, which specialises in tamperproof solutions for products such as banknotes and tax stamps, the Certus myHealth Pass is designed to work on the basis of both paper and digital certifications and would also be available in hard copy for those without smartphones, a fact which is particularly important given that those over the age of 80 in the UK have first dibs on the vaccine.
In the wake of a poor track record for Covid-19 containment, it is understandable that the UK is keen to be a pioneer, especially given the world will (per UN chief Antonio Guterres) be fighting the aftershocks of this virus for “decades to come.”