Vaccine Passports: Are They Ethical?

Vaccine Passports: Are They Ethical?

, by Aaron Gates-Lincoln

All the versions of this article: [English] [italiano]

Vaccine Passports: Are They Ethical?

With the beginning of vaccination programmes occurring widespread throughout Europe and the rest of the world, the travel industry is yearning to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. For many, it is clear that the worst part of the pandemic may be over, and plans can finally start to be made for how industries and economies are going to recover from the crisis.

The concern for everyone is the possibility of returning to daily, normal lives. One of the key aspects of this is travel, whether it be for work or for leisure. Pandemic restrictions across Europe have prevented this from happening for nearly a year now, and has had unprecedented impacts on tourist industries. The process of international travel has been plagued by enforced quarantine periods, the requirements of presenting negative Covid-19 tests and even government legislated travel corridors that only allow travel to certain regions. However, the vaccination programmes are expected to take at least another year to be completed, meaning other ways to ensure safe international travel need to be explored.

This has allowed the idea of vaccine passports to grow since the beginning of the pandemic, with the simple concept of allowing those who are vaccinated against Covid-19 to travel internationally. Such passports are not to be standardised globally and will be developed and produced independently by each country, leaving room for differences in their composition. Despite this, it is expected that the passports would be a digital certification system that contains health data of holders that act as official proof of their ability to travel safely.

Over the past few months as the possibility has been discussed, the perspective on the need, safety and ethics of a vaccine passport across Europe seems to be split. The World Health Organisation (WHO) in December 2020 at a press briefing in Copenhagen affirmed the body’s guidance on the development of passports as being not recommended. They stated that they did not believe it was an effective form of lowering transmission across borders and that they believed countries should continue to monitor data and adjust travel guidance accordingly. However, two months before this in October, the WHO also agreed to collaborate on the development of a digital certificate with Estonia to help strengthen the case for vaccines. This paradox of intention serves as a metaphor for the opinion of the whole of Europe currently, as countries such as the UK have repeatedly denied that such a document is even being discussed, whilst others such as Greece are openly developing their first drafts.

Ethical Issues

The popularity of the system is clearly growing amongst general populations and governments; however, this does not make it right. The inability to agree on the production of a vaccine passport system does call into question what the ethics of such a certificate entail.

Although they would solve many of the economic issues that countries have been facing over the past year, there are legitimate concerns that they could abuse personal liberties and privacy. The University of Exeter in the UK reported in December 2020 that they found issues in the ability to protect sensitive personal health information through this system and that in reality vaccine passports could develop a global health apartheid through discrimination against travel based on health. There is a considerable moral problem in this, as many people believe it is a human right to be able to travel, but this could be taken away from them for reasons that they do not have control of due to inefficient vaccine rollouts or inability to access or afford the treatment.

It has also been suggested through the data produced on vaccine efficiency, that it is yet unknown how effective the treatment is at lowering transmission rates. This means that those who have had the vaccine are protected against becoming seriously ill, but that they could still catch and transmit the virus to others. This could create serious risks for international travel, as it opens up borders to the possibility of transmitting the virus easier to populations who have not yet had the vaccine. It also may allow those travelling to catch new variants of Covid-19, like those found in Kent in England, or in South Africa, and bringing them back to the traveller’s country of origin. It seems appropriate for governments to wait until data on vaccine efficiency becomes available and reliable before they begin developing vaccine passports, to ensure that the ethical and moral justification behind the documents can be supported by science.

Unsurprisingly, many governments of European countries appear to have been too impatient for such data to become clear, and have begun the process of passport development. Recently, the Prime Minister of Greece, Kyriakos Mitsotakis called upon the European Commission to introduce a standardised vaccine passport to facilitate travel within the EU easier and more coherently. However, countries such as Iceland have actually already provided certificates to immune citizens and have announced they will recognise any similar forms of documentation from any EU or Schengen country in the future. Furthermore, other Nordic countries of Denmark and Sweden also announced their intention to produce the passports, that will not only allow travel, but enable dining in restaurants and attendance of crowd events. The passport seems to have been incredibly popular within Europe, as Spain, Portugal, Cyprus and Poland have all announced their support for the documentation.

It is here that the moral debate becomes even more necessary. A common theme of those supporting vaccine passports appears to be countries that have large tourist industries. It certainly is necessary for such sectors to see their growth resume, for economic stability at national level and at the individual level. However, it has to be argued that it could be morally wrong for the production of the passports to go ahead without the full scientific understanding of what impact it could have on transmission becoming clear. As the pandemic continues to rage on, as many other things do, it becomes a battle between money and health.

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