China rolls out 'vaccine passports' to kickstart international travel

But doubts remain over the digital health certificate's validity outside the country as other nations pursue innovative ideas to certify that passengers have been inoculated against the coronavirus

China rolls out vaccine passports to kickstart international travel
A passenger undergoes a test considered reliable for detecting active coronavirus disease infection before boarding a flight from Israel to the US at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on March 8. Photo: Reuters

(ATF) China has become the first large country to issue "vaccine passports" to kickstart international travel, enabling citizens to download the new certificates and potentially use them to enter and leave the country. 

However, as it is only available for Chinese citizens, it is not yet clear how it could work internationally.

Similar schemes are also under discussion in the US and the EU. In the UK, more than six in 10 adults support vaccine passports for travel this summer, a poll found.

A total of 63% of respondents said they strongly supported or tended to support the introduction of a vaccine passport to allow overseas travel into and out of the UK this summer, according to a Kantar poll in February.

AIRLINES WARY

However, airlines are wary of the idea.

Catriona Taylor, group passenger operations director at air charter specialist Chapman Freeborn, said that although the Covid-19 vaccination passport initiative is "well meaning", there are too many variables and unknowns for it to be effective.

"Airlines will want to know who will be responsible," she said. “Will it be a requirement by governments to show the certificate on entry to a country? Or is it something that needs to be provided to the airline before travel?"

Taylor said the vaccine passport could become yet another bureaucratic burden for carriers.

“Burdening airlines with the responsibility of checking and verifying certificates will come at a high cost," she said. "When someone does not have the correct visa to enter a country, it then becomes the airline’s duty to fly that passenger home," she pointed out.

"This is unfair on airlines which are already stretched financially because of the pandemic."

FORUM PUSHES PASSPORTS

The World Economic Forum has been a leading proponent of vaccine passports.

Arnaud Bernaert, WEF head of health and healthcare, said a “vaccine passport” or “e-vaccination certification of compliance for border crossing regulations” could be required to enable seamless border-crossing.

He said the forum supports the World Health Organization’s effort to create a common global standard.

"The forum is working with the Common Trust Network to develop an open access set of trusted data sources, accredited labs and up-to-date border crossing regulations to to enable providers of authentication solutions interested in the development of border crossing certificates," he said. 

ASIA SLOW TO REACT

Asia, which has generally contained the pandemic more effectively than other regions, has largely been slow off the mark with vaccine passports.

Earlier this month, Singapore’s Government Technology Agency and Ministry of Health said they have developed a globally interoperable standard to verify Covid-19 test results and speed up clearance through immigration checkpoints when travelling. 

Bahrain has launched a digital Covid-19 vaccine passport, one of the first countries to do so. The Gulf state's BeAware app displays a green shield alongside an official certificate detailing the person’s name, date of birth, nationality and which vaccine was received.

Users must have received two doses of a vaccine, separated by 21 days, and then wait for two weeks for antibodies to develop, the statement said.

With reporting by Agence France-Presse and Reuters

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