Will vaccination passports get us all travelling safely again?

The World Tourism Organization has called for Covid-19 vaccination passports to become standardised essential travel documents. Will this signal a return to international tourism?

Published 29 Jan 2021, 13:00 GMT, Updated 23 Feb 2021, 15:25 GMT
For the many countries who rely on travel and tourism as a major economic contributor and ...

For the many countries who rely on travel and tourism as a major economic contributor and source of employment, vaccination passports look like a potential fast track to a return to normality.

Photograph by Getty Images

In the same week that the UK closed all travel corridors and upped its quarantine ante for arrivals, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) called for the implementation of harmonised testing protocols and vaccine passports. The proposal could see the creation of an international standardised digital certification system for Covid-19 vaccinations. Speaking at the Global Tourism Crisis Committee in Madrid on 18 January, secretary general Zurab Pololikashvili said, “The rollout of vaccines is a step in the right direction, but the restart of tourism cannot wait. Vaccines must be part of a wider, coordinated approach that includes certificates and passes for safe cross-border travel.”

Are vaccine passports the answer?

For the many countries who rely on travel and tourism as a major economic contributor and source of employment, time is of the essence — and vaccination passports look like a potential fast track to a return to normality. They look like the answer, too, for myriad international projects reliant on tourism’s footfall and finance, from African wildlife conservation to sustainable community tourism initiatives in Asia, South America and beyond. However, many experts have noted that to achieve global herd immunity, we would have to have vaccinated some 80-90% of the world’s population. In short: no one is safe until everyone is safe. Talking to nationalgeographic.com, Dr Jewel Mullen, of the University of Texas said, “Being overly, or prematurely, confident about the vaccines’ effectiveness can lead to putting people in other countries at risk. Travel gives us a chance to contribute to their faltering economies. But contributing to disease spread undermines that.”

Who will be left behind?

The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) notes the prohibitive amount of time needed to vaccinate the majority global population, particularly those in developing countries and those in ‘non-vulnerable’ groups. And according to the People’s Vaccine Alliance — a movement of health and humanitarian organisations including Amnesty International and Oxfam — rich countries secured 53% of the most promising vaccine candidates, despite representing just 14% of the world’s population. It says that, without urgent action, just 10% of the populations of 67 developing countries can be vaccinated in 2021, putting citizens of such key travel destinations as Cambodia, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Uganda at risk.

Testing and vaccination passports: a two-pronged attack

With only a small percentage of the world population vaccinated so far, should travel also be permitted for those who have proof of a negative coronavirus test? “A blanket vaccination requirement would simply discriminate against non-vulnerable groups, such as generations X and Z and millennials, who should be able to travel with proof of a negative Covid-19 test,” says WTTC president and CEO Gloria Guevara. Opponents to vaccination passports have flagged the human rights and data protection issues related to making the disclosure of personal medical information mandatory. “It is also important to consider alternatives to vaccine passports for those who cannot receive a vaccine such as pregnant women, as it is not yet clear whether they can be safely vaccinated,” says Dr Ana Beduschi, from the University of Exeter Law School, who heads up a publicly-funded research initiative on digital health passports. Yet with the yellow fever vaccination an established entry requirement in several countries, a precedent has been set.

Vaccine or immunity passports are something the UK government says it’s currently considering, but it cites concerns over the varying levels of protection against the virus offered by different vaccines, as well as the uncertainty over how long immunity lasts after immunisation and whether vaccinated people can still spread the virus to others.

Photograph by Getty Images

Support from other nations 

With vocal backing from such countries as Greece, president of the European Union Commission Ursula von der Leyen has said she supports the idea of establishing a common vaccination certificate in the EU. This would be issued by member states to everyone who gets vaccinated against coronavirus. Meanwhile, nations including Denmark, Cyprus and Seychelles are aiming to create variants of vaccine passports that would enable freer movement for people who have received a jab; Seychelles is currently gunning to be the first nation to vaccinate its entire population. In Iceland and Hungary, an ‘immunity passport’ is already a requirement for entry, showing that the traveller has previously been infected with coronavirus and now has antibodies.

How is the UK responding?

Vaccine or immunity passports are something the UK government says it’s currently considering, citing concerns over the varying levels of protection against the virus offered by different vaccines, as well as the uncertainty over how long immunity lasts after immunisation and whether vaccinated people can still spread the virus to others. 

The new rules surrounding testing and quarantine

Currently, entry into England is limited to select arrival routes, or for returning British nationals. Arrivals must show proof of a negative Covid-19 test and quarantine for up to 10 days (reduced to five days if a second test is negative, in accordance with the Test to Release scheme). Passengers arriving from countries with a risk of known variants must undergo quarantine at a government-provided hotel at their own expense. Variations of this process are in place elsewhere in the UK.

But the efficacy of this system has been called into question by many. “Testing travellers is the solution to restarting international travel while avoiding exporting the virus,” said WTTC’s Gloria Guevara, adding, however, that tests were of little use if results were tardy or the red tape around them confusing. “Tests need to be quick, more affordable and accessible, and should also be available through the NHS, not just through expensive third-party suppliers.”

Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh and a vocal opponent of the government’s ‘fatalistic strategy’ when it comes to containing the virus, said, “We need to make sure we have not just testing at airports, but real quarantine procedures, because testing isn’t perfect. The only way to be sure is to monitor and enforce isolation either at a hotel or at home.”

How might vaccination regulations impact consumers? 

Soon enough, travellers could find that without proof of vaccination, they’ll fail to get insurance. Several travel insurance firms, including Axa and Europ Assistance have indicated that if the EU makes vaccination a mandatory entry requirement for its territory, they’ll update their policies accordingly. And some travel companies have already made vaccines compulsory for travel, including Saga, which requires its cruise passengers to have had both doses of the vaccine at least 14 days before departure. Qantas has also said it will require passengers to be vaccinated before boarding a flight with the airline.

Tourist attractions, stores and restaurants could, in theory, follow suit. Since vaccinations began, UK travel companies have reported a surge in bookings. Saga, which offers travel for over-50s, reported rising numbers of bookings for this year and next; travel association ABTA, meanwhile, said its members reported that the over-50s represented a much higher proportion of early bookers than normal.

Read more: Everything you need to know about travel during the coronavirus pandemic

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