• Holly Duke

CMI Explains: Vaccine Passports

What are vaccine passports?

On a basic level, vaccine passports would enable those who have been vaccinated to have more freedom to travel or engage in activities which have a high COVID risk associated with them. Different forms of these passports have already been discussed, such as ones for international travel, or, on a more local level, requirements for entry into places such as pubs and restaurants.

Even without formal passports, private businesses are already beginning to show signs of requiring vaccination. A survey conducted by Manpower, a recruitment agency, found that 20% of employers had plans to require the vaccine for some employees, and another 14% were considering doing the same. A prime example of this is care homes, supported by the chair of Care Forum Wales, Mario Kreft, who said ‘It is clearly sensible that care homes should be allowed to refuse to recruit anybody who has not been vaccinated’. There is also the potential for these requirements to stem from consumer demand, with consumers insisting on employees being vaccinated, particularly in the hospitality industry, where risk of transmission is high. Therefore, the introduction of vaccine passports would essentially be a legal extension of requirements already being implemented by the private sector.

This is not a new concept: proof of vaccination against yellow fever is required in many countries for foreign tourists. Implementation of vaccine passports has already begun in Israel, known as a ‘Green Pass’, and countries such as Denmark, Iceland and Estonia are currently developing vaccine passports for international travel. There is support for these vaccine passports amongst the UK population: according to YouGov, 65% of British people say that they would support vaccine passports.

What are the benefits of vaccine passports?

The marginal social benefits of getting a vaccine are high, with an estimated requirement of between 50-80% of the population needing to be vaccinated against COVID-19 to ensure that herd immunity is developed and the risk of another wave is minimised. It is also vital for those who may be unable to receive a vaccine, such as those who are immune-compromised, and are therefore relying on uptake by others. Both doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine cuts asymptomatic cases by nearly 90%, which is crucial for the prevention of spread of the virus.

Reasons for choosing not to receive the vaccine are broad, but lack of trust in science is common, with many citing the speed at which the COVID-19 vaccines were produced a significant concern, suggesting that there is the potential for side effects which are not yet fully known. However, others may not be making a conscious decision to refuse the vaccine, but instead be subject to procrastination and status quo bias, where they prefer things to stay as they are. Therefore, vaccine passports act as strong incentives for those initially less likely to get the vaccine, increasing the uptake and therefore the rate at which we are able to return to normal life. This is particularly important for the travel and tourism sectors, which have been deeply impacted by the pandemic. The passports could also lead to changes in social norms through emphasising the societal expectation that an individual should be vaccinated.

What are the costs of vaccine passports?

A common argument against vaccine passports is that they lead to discrimination. Globally, imposing requirements for vaccine passports will prevent citizens from countries with slower vaccination programmes, often poorer countries, from being able to travel. Indeed, it is estimated that in poorer countries, the vaccination programme could not be completed until 2023 or 2024. Additionally, most countries have taken the approach of vaccinating those at high risk first, predominantly old people, leaving younger people unable to travel. It is therefore unfair to implement passports which will impact those who are willing to receive the vaccine but have not yet had the chance to receive it. Uptake rates also vary for different ethnicities and religions, which suggests that vaccine passports would have an unequal impact on different ethnic groups.

Furthermore, there are issues associated with the implementation of the passports. Digital passports, such as through an app, would result in those without a smartphone being excluded, even if they have received the vaccine. These passports also have the potential to create a black market within the UK, as has been seen in Israel, with forged passports and vaccination certificates already being sold on the dark web for around $150. There are also concerns surrounding privacy, and the move down a ‘slippery slope’ where private health information is increasingly required by organisations for employment or entry purposes.

Additionally, how useful will the passports really be? A survey conducted in Israel found that 31% of respondents said the Green Pass would persuade them to get the vaccine, compared to 41% who said it would not change their decision. Realistically, the introduction of vaccine passports would influence those undecided about the vaccines, but is unlikely to change the mind of those who were firm in their decision. In the long run, once the majority has been vaccinated and herd immunity achieved, the passports would no longer be necessary. Therefore, there would be large costs in implementation for potential short-term gain.