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Vaccine passports our ticket to freedom

We’re slowly working our way towards a new normal – and it’s clear that vaccination is the key to getting us there. 

It’s no secret that the pandemic has interrupted our lives. Clusters of outbreaks and the endless string of lockdowns to control their spread have played havoc with our health – both physical and mental – and social lives, as well as the global economy. 

But slowly, we’re working our way towards a new normal; and it’s clear that vaccination will be the key to get us there. 

As proof of vaccination certificates begin trials across New South Wales and Victoria, Dr Shariful Islam – a National Heart Foundation Senior Research Fellow and NHMRC Emerging Leadership Fellow at Deakin University – shares his thoughts on our ticket to freedom. 

From Green Passes to digital certificates 

Vaccination certificates – also known as vaccine passports – aren’t limited to Australia. Several countries around the world have already implemented their own versions, each with their own spin on who can be issued one, and what freedoms they’re allowed. 

Israel were first in line, introducing their Green Pass in February this year, which allows vaccinated members of the public to enjoy attending restaurants and large gatherings. Other countries around the world have followed in their footsteps, but with their own nuances.

For instance, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s My COVID-19 Pass is aimed at enabling free movement within the community, while the European Union’s Digital COVID-19 Certificate supports domestic and overseas travel.

Exactly who can access a passport varies from country to country. The EU’s certificate can be issued to the vaccinated, people who have recovered from the virus and those who return a negative test result. However, it’s unclear if exposure to the virus can give you sustained immunity, and a negative result doesn’t guarantee you won’t get infected later on. 

Not all Australian states and territories are looking to implement the passports, but for those who will, it’s likely they’ll only be accessible to the fully vaccinated. 

Differing rules between countries could pose a challenge for international travel later on. To solve this, Dr Islam hopes that once the passports are more widespread, the World Health Organization will develop a global set of specifications for the passports to adhere to. 

When our borders open up, Dr Islam speculates that, “vaccine passport holders could travel overseas and enjoy a quarantine-free return as long as they test negative for the virus on arrival back in Australia,” although we’ll likely be combining our permission to travel with continued mask wearing, social distancing and COVID-19 testing to minimise the spread of the virus.

Exemptions from lockdowns a possible reward 

While vaccine passports are still in their trial phase Dr Islam has some suggestions to make them even more effective. 

Passports should be available in digital and paper formats for greater accessibility, and subject to an expiry date. After all, we’re still learning about the efficacy of each vaccine, and how often we will require booster shots for greater protection as the virus mutates.

He also believes the passports should only be issued after the appropriate waiting period. That’s one week after your second dose of Pfizer and three weeks after your second dose of AstraZeneca. 

Once this proof of vaccination is administered Dr Islam says it should allow for unrestricted access to gatherings and public venues, as well as providing an exemption from lockdowns. The latter is something many Melbournians would be grateful for, having been crowned the most locked down city in the world. 

“Vaccinated people are less likely to get infected or transmit the virus – as long as they abide by other public health measures – so suppressing their rights is unethical,” he says. 

Proof of immunisation is not a new concept 

Dr Islam hopes that vaccine passports and the promise of freedom they hold will motivate any stragglers or those hesitant to get the jab to book in for their shot. Then these people too can participate in normal life once more and help to protect their community’s health.  

“The introduction of a vaccine passport may play a pivotal role in incentivising vaccine-hesitant people to get vaccinated, as was evident in Israel,” Dr Islam says.  

But for some Australians, the introduction of these passports will be a cause for concern. For instance, some members of the public may feel that having to prove their vaccination status is a breach of their privacy, or else may be worried about how their data is collected and used when using the Service Victoria check in app – something Dr Islam agrees needs to be addressed. 

Stemming from these attitudes, there’s a possibility that the passports could be easily forged. Think of the fake check in ticks that emerged earlier this year in response to privacy concerns from scanning QR codes. There’s no doubt some unvaccinated members of the community will try to pass themselves off as free to travel with a fake passport. 

Despite this, proof of immunisation is far from a new concept, Dr Islam reminds us.

“In Australia, childhood vaccination records are required to receive specific family tax benefits or school enrolments,” he says.  

It’s also worth remembering that the passport’s primary use is to reopen our social and economic lives, and potentially provide lockdown exemptions to the fully vaccinated. And who wouldn’t want that? 

Dr Shariful Islam is a National Heart Foundation Senior Research Fellow and NHMRC Emerging Leadership Fellow at Deakin University, as well as a physician scientist within the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition

Curious? Discover more of Dr Islam’s thoughts on vaccine passports in his article, ‘A pragmatic approach to COVID-19 vaccine passport’. 

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