As Vaccine Passports Are Rolled Out Across the World, What Price Freedom?

11 April 2021

There follows a guest post by Lockdown Sceptics’ in-house technology correspondent about the introduction of vaccine passports around the world.

It used to be that the crazy ideas of politicians seldom came to fruition because Government IT projects dragged on for years before being cancelled anyway. We were all protected by the ineptitude of civil servants who built the wrong things in the wrong way. That is not the case these days. Last year’s NHS COVID19 app was a well-engineered piece of software, deployed at massive scale to 21 million people. In just two months it became one of the world’s most downloaded medical software products. It was certainly built in the right way, but did it live up to the barely credible claims made by the politicians? Has anyone heard NHSX, the app’s creator, defending its claim that its venue QR codes “will help avoid the reintroduction of lockdown measures and support the country to return to a normal way of life”? That was two lockdowns ago, by the way. Or can anyone provide evidence in support of NHSX’s claim that “for every 1 to 2 people who download the app, an infection could be prevented”? Given that we know it was downloaded 21 million times that implies 11-21 million averted infections. The Alan Turing Institute gushed over its estimated 284,000 averted infections but failed to point out that meant NHSX were out by a factor of 56. We are indeed in an era of being able to successfully build the wrong systems in the right way.

This is not a problem peculiar to the UK. Countries around the world are rushing to build digital vaccine passports. They are certainly the wrong systems. According to The Ada Lovelace Institute report “What place should COVID-19 vaccine passports have in society?”: “The expert group came to the view that at present vaccination status does not offer clear or conclusive evidence about any individual’s risk to others via transmission. Without that it cannot be a robust basis for risk-based decision making, and therefore any roll out of a digital passport is not currently justified.” They concur with the European Data Protection Board which points out the dangers of unintended secondary uses resulting in widespread discrimination and inequality.

But who cares about all that when you could be launching an app? When we look at death tallies and population level vaccination rates one has to question the motivation of the rush to implement this kind of technology. Take Brunei with a grand total of three COVID-19 deaths. It already has its app, BruHealth, which is used to restrict access to business premises and shows the “activity trace” of any nearby confirmed cases. They even used it for a while to control access to Friday prayers. Finland, with 868 deaths and 2% of its population fully vaccinated, has joined with Estonia (1,006 deaths, 5% vaccinated) to be one of the first to pilot a WHO scheme involving showing your immunity status to your employer. What could possibly go wrong? Australia, with 909 deaths and only 4% of its population vaccinated, is working with unions to determine domestic restrictions based on its Medicare Express Plus app which can access the national Australian Immunisation Register. The data suggests these countries do not have a problem that merits deploying technology to restrict the lives of 95% of their citizens for an indefinite period.

Given the slow pace of vaccine rollouts in almost every country, especially for two dose vaccines, placing restrictions on the unvaccinated means hampering life for the vast majority of people on earth and strangling every significant economy for months, or more likely years, to come. Just look at the proportion of the population fully vaccinated in these countries: South Korea and Taiwan 0.1%, Japan 0.4%, Finland 2%, Australia 4%, France 5%, Germany 6%. The UK considers itself world-leading, but it is only at 10.5% as far as other countries would be concerned because of its two dose vaccines. Meanwhile the US is at 21.5%.

Don’t think that it is just a case of waiting to get your jabs for access to the jet set. What’s to say we don’t end up like the Serbians who have mainly received Russian and Chinese vaccines, not recognised by the European Medicines Agency and therefore excluded from the proposed EU Digital Green Pass. Will the AZ and Pfizer vaccines be acceptable in every country? An interesting option perhaps for those looking for a way to disrupt another’s economy.

There are some countries such as Japan, Poland, Spain, Switzerland and even Scotland which are taking a more thoughtful, considered approach. The problem for them is that with so many countries already using vaccine passports there will be demand from their citizens for proof of vaccination to be able to travel abroad. Once the certificate is in circulation can its use be restricted to only international travel? Anyone who has had to present their passport to open a bank account or hire a car can provide an answer to that question.