EXPLAINER

COVID-19 vaccine passports on the way via Services Australia

A vaccine certificate or 'passport', proving an individual has been inoculated against COVID-19, may be able to be accessed via a smartphone app and help open up Australia for international travel again. Picture: Shutterstock
A vaccine certificate or 'passport', proving an individual has been inoculated against COVID-19, may be able to be accessed via a smartphone app and help open up Australia for international travel again. Picture: Shutterstock

As the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in Australia inches closer, governments and businesses have turned their minds to how individuals can eventually prove they have received a vaccine.

This has introduced the concept of a "vaccine passport", a digital or paper certificate which would prove the bearer had been vaccinated and potentially allow them to travel or gain entry to certain businesses.

They have been labelled by some leaders as the ticket to returning life back to normal.

How do I get a COVID-19 vaccine passport?

Well, the first step is to be vaccinated.

Australians will begin receiving the Pfizer vaccine later this month, with the AstraZeneca vaccine to follow in March.

The federal cabinet is currently considering the rollout of the certificate program, which would allow people to access digital proof of vaccination via the Express Plus Medicare app and MyGov accounts. Approval is expected within the next two weeks.

Government services minister Stuart Robert said that, for the 89 per cent of Australians who use a smartphone, it would be a simple matter of accessing and showing the certificate via the app.

"They will be able to access that digital certificate in their smartphone, download it onto their phone as a permanent record," Mr Robert said.

"So every Australian will have a record of the vaccination should they need it."

People will also be able to contact Services Australia by phone or by visiting a branch to have a physical copy printed out and vaccination providers will also be able to supply vaccine certificates.

What will I need a vaccine passport for?

That remains unclear. But there have been hints.

One safe bet is international travel.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce has already announced that the nation's flagship carrier would implement a "no jab, no fly" policy on all its international flights. However, no firm decision has yet been made for Qantas' domestic flights.

Qantas is not alone in its stance, with many tourism and travel operators believing that a vaccine passport is the key to opening up Australia's borders and boosting the struggling industries.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews also threw his support behind a vaccine passport for international travel, saying it would eventually replace mandatory quarantine.

"This is how we'll travel around the country freely, this is how we're going to travel around the world and it's the basis on which we'll invite people here," Mr Andrews previously told radio station Triple M.

"There won't be hotel quarantine once we get a vaccine. It'll be 'if you're not vaccinated you're not coming'."

There have also been suggestions that vaccine certificates would be used to provide simpler access to high-risk locations such as hospitals or nursing homes. They could also be used to allow people to cross state borders in the event of future lockdowns.

Speaking last month, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian did not rule out allowing NSW pubs and restaurants to bar patrons who had not been vaccinated.

While she said she did not like to force people to do things, she said the NSW government would look at ways to encourage people to get vaccinated.

"It's for their own safety and the safety of others. The more people that are vaccinated, the greater the likelihood that we can have a return to normality as we know it," she said on radio station 2GB in January.

She also flagged that the Service NSW app, currently used for contact tracing purposes, could also be used to display a vaccine certificate.

No level of government has made any firm statements yet regarding individuals who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or are otherwise unable to be innoculated.

Are there any concerns about the program?

Yes, several.

The single largest question hanging over the various COVID-19 vaccines is whether they will lower the transmissibility of the virus. This won't be known until significantly more evidence is gathered.

While there is strong proof showing the vaccines prevent serious illness, with Pfizer's vaccine reducing risk by 95 per cent, this does not mean a vaccinated person poses no risk.

Clinical epidemiologist Fiona Stanaway, from the University of Sydney School of Public Health, said that until we have more evidence of the vaccines' impact on virus transmission it was not appropriate to say vaccinated people did not have to quarantine or follow restrictions.

"People may still have an asymptomatic case [of COVID-19] and could transmit that to others," Dr Stanaway said.

She added that while Australia was in the enviable position of aiming to vaccinate its entire population by the end of the year, it would take several years for other countries to vaccinate their people.

This would directly impact international travel for both Australians and overseas visitors, she said.

Other countries are also considering implementing vaccine passports. Australia is working on ways to have our certificates recognised overseas and vice versa, and foreign governments are also experiencing complications.

Germany's ethics council, which advises the government, recommended that vaccinated citizens receive no special benefits for fear of civil unrest. Not only did it agree there was a medical risk due to unknown transmission risks, but it argued giving privileges to some citizens could create infighting among those seeking vaccination.

Dr Stanaway said considering the federal government had ruled out making the vaccine compulsory, there were limits on what you could force on the population.

"There's a problem with [vaccine passports] as an idea until everyone has access to a vaccine," she said.

"Encouraging people to do something that's unavailable is not appropriate."

Mr Robert said public health orders were the responsibility of state and territory governments and it would be left to them to decide what vaccine requirements were introduced, including for workplaces.

Are there already vaccine restrictions?

Yes.

Requirements for vaccination are not new. The federal government requires children to meet immunisation standards for families to receive the Family Tax Benefit or child care fee assistance. Many child care centres require children to be immunised to enroll.

Some countries also have a requirement that visitors from yellow fever prone areas prove they have been vaccinated against the disease.

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This story What could I need a COVID-19 passport for? first appeared on The Canberra Times.