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Europe debates Covid health passports for travellers

The European Commission is set to discuss the idea tomorrow as private companies advance with tech developments

20 January 2021
By Hannah Thompson

Digital health passports that enable passengers to travel internationally after Covid-19 could become necessary in Europe, as companies begin development of the idea and nation states consider new laws.

The idea of health passports - which would certify that the person has been vaccinated against Covid-19 - has already received support from airlines and airport heads. In December, the head of French airport group Groupe ADP, Augustin de Romanet, said that restrictions on flying already exist, with many countries in Africa also requiring proof of vaccinations for other conditions, and proof of malaria precautions before entering.

He said: “I do not know if a vaccine will be made obligatory, but the principle doesn’t seem so mind-blowing to me."

Read more: ‘Vaccine passport idea already exists’: French airport boss

One advanced project on the idea of a health certificate is the smartphone app AOKPass, which was developed in March 2020 by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), in partnership with the companies SGS and International SOS, which offer what they call “medical prevention proof”.

AOKPass is already holding talks with 170 airports worldwide. If introduced, the app would require passengers to register a recent negative Covid-19 test or proof of vaccination, before being allowed to travel.

Chester Drum, co-founder of AOKPass, told newspaper Le Figaro: “These should be deployed within the next two months in several international airports.”

Mr Drum added that the technology used within the app is “created to protect the safety and complete confidentiality of a passenger’s medical information”.

Le Figaro reports that AOKPass is preparing to launch a major trial in France, in partnership with Paris airport Roissy-Charles de Gaulle and French medical laboratory group Biogroup. It is also in discussion with French-based international airport management group Aéroport de Paris.

It has already partnered with Rome airport managing company Aeroporti di Roma, and Italian airline company Alitalia. It is in an experimental phase on several airlines that connect Singapore and Tokyo, served by Singapore Airlines; and on a Rome-Atlanta route, served by Alitalia.

A professional airline source told Le Figaro that the idea was to establish a proper system of checking and certification of tests and vaccinations. The source said: “Over the past few years, faced with the need for people to be vaccinated against yellow fever to reach certain destinations, international airports have helped to develop a black market of false documents.

“With Covid-19, the stakes are too high health-wise and financially to allow this to happen.”

AOKPass would therefore work with partner laboratories to create a specific digital signature for each individual test.

Mr Drum explained: “This information will then be kept in a digital document on the smartphone, in the form of a QR code. The passenger will need to show this at the airport when they check in, before boarding or at border control, to prove that they meet the criteria for entry into the country.”

Guy-Pierre Caron, a lawyer specialising in airline transport law, said: “These entities [private companies] are anticipating several national legal scenarios, which will be detailed within the next few weeks or months, depending on the country.”

 

European talks

The European Commission told Le Figaro: “We are in active discussions with member states on the recognition of vaccination certificates, at the same time as working on acknowledging [negative] tests.

“We welcome all contributions from member states, because it is an essential question for free movement within the EU.”

The EU is set to debate the necessary measures that may be put in place for a possible future European health passport or certificate tomorrow (January 21).

Margaritis Schinas, a Commission vice-president, told UK newspaper The Telegraph that “extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures”, and that it was “perfectly imaginable that this can open avenues for other use, including facilitating travel”.

In France, there has already been strong support for the idea. Jean-Pierre Mas, president of travel company union le syndicat des entreprises du voyage, has already presented a file to this effect to the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Read more: France debates new bill on vaccination ‘health passports’

UK-Europe issues?

A European certificate could prove controversial in the UK.

The British Department of Health has said that vaccine passports were not being discussed at this stage in Britain, because it is not yet known whether the vaccines stop you being a carrier of the virus or how long the vaccine protection lasts.

The EU has said that the health certificates could be used “in the EU and beyond”, although it is not yet clear if this will apply to the UK, or if the UK would accept EU certificates for travellers entering its borders.

Global support

Worldwide, there is support for the passport idea. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) - which has 290 air transport company members - has said that it is currently developing its own international digital health certificate platform.

IATA president Alexandre de Juniac has recently said: “We are still on track for complete development of the app within the first quarter of 2021.”

In the US, digital giants Microsoft, Salesforce and Oracle have formed a coalition - along with health institutions and NGOs - called VCI (Vaccination Credential Initiative) to create a digital vaccination certificate.

Meanwhile on the African continent, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and technology specialist PanaBIOS are also developing a digital Covid pass in collaboration with a network of laboratories.

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EU leaders discuss UK Covid-19 travel ban

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