Armand Arton has long prophesied the death of the passport in the form of a paper booklet we carry around with us. But its demise is likely to come sooner, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, he says, as the race to create the first global vaccine passport gets underway.
Iceland and Poland started issuing Covid-19 vaccine certificates last month. Denmark, Sweden and Estonia are hot on their heels will allow its bearers to visit gyms and bars. The European race to come up with a credible vaccine passport is heating up, led by Greece.
“We call them certificates not passports,” says Alex Patelis, the chief economic advisor to the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who has called for a European certificate for people vaccinated against Covid-19.
“For countries such as Greece, which are dependent on tourism, it’s imperative that this issue is resolved before the summer season,” Mitsotakis wrote in a letter to the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. The country desperately needs the tourists: A fifth of the country’s GDP comes from tourism and its economy contracted by 11.6% last year after a particularly slow summer season.
Greece’s draft vaccine certificate shows what this might look like. A digital QR code can be scanned whenever someone enters the country by air, sea or rail, something that is being tested in a trial run with Cyprus . An agreement between the three countries could see certificate holders move freely between them and the U.K. could be next, according to Haris Theoharis, the Greek tourism minister.
How would a vaccine certificate work? Greek authorities are quick to point out that it would not be “an obligatory requirement” for travelers to have one. Rather, anyone entering Greece with a vaccine certificate could bypass all the usual rigmarole required of non-vaccinated travelers, such as quarantining, showing negative PCR tests or filling in passenger locator forms.
“Greece is working on a number of bilateral agreements with third countries to allow mutual recognition of vaccination certificates,” says Patelis. “Ultimately certificates need some sort of unique QR code,”
But behind the humble QR code, there are a myriad of issues that must be resolved first, according to the Royal Society. It highlighted 12 of them in a paper published last week. “International standardisation is one of the criteria we believe essential,” says Professor Melinda Mills, director of the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford and a lead author of the report.
Security is another. “You need a really stringent and robust verification system,” says David Hollick, CEO of Logifect, one of eight companies that has received U.K. government grants to work on a digital immunity document.
“Anyone can fake Israel’s vaccination certificate,” ran a recent headline in Haaretz, after flaws were found in its green card scheme. Apple has removed dozens of dubious apps offering Covid-19 vaccine certificates from its App Store. Greek authorities are nervous after a bad experience with forged passenger locator forms and PCR test results.
Any vaccine certificate also has to be dynamic. “Let’s say a variant comes along and you find the vaccine starts to wane,” says Hollik. “You’ve got to find a rapid way of assuring real-time means of actually deleting a passport, revoking a passport or reissuing a passport.”
Then there is the race itself. A growing number of companies and countries are coming up with their own versions of vaccine certificates. But if organizations like the World Health Organisation, European Union and International Air Transport Association (IATA) don’t quickly agree on a common set of frameworks the result could be “a complex confusion of mutually incompatible bilateral certificate structures,” says Andrew Bud, founder and CEO of iProov, which, together with Mvine, is trialing a vaccine certificate in the U.K.
However, for the company or country that cracks the Covid vaccine certificate, the rewards could be huge. They will change the was we travel, not just this year, but far into the future.
Vaccine Passports Could Change Travel For Good
“My prediction is that over the next 20 years, we will see more innovation and transformation of the passport as a document than ever before,” says Arton. His firm, Arton Capital, advises families and individuals around the world on citizenship and global mobility.
In the same way that the need for a Covid-19 vaccine has turbo-charged the science behind immunization science, the race for its certification is pushing boundaries in identification technologies. The biometrics and cloud technology that a vaccine certificate would use are exactly the technologies required for passport-less travel.
And just as record numbers receive these new vaccines, there could also be a whole new appetite for identification technologies, says Arton: “People in general may be more susceptible to the idea which is already in progress.”
Multilateral organizations such as the UN’s ICAO and IATA are already planning for an era of passport-less travel.
It is, after all, a perfectly logical scenario says Bud: “Why carry your passport around with you when it’s held securely in the cloud? If someone steals it or if you drop it down the toilet you’ve just lost your credentials.”
With any vaccine certificate likely to use both cloud technology and biometrics, international travel in 2021 could be one giant experiment for passport-less travel. Tech companies will be watching closely, with the potential for huge contracts when the world is allowed to travel again.
“This is pretty important,” says Bud. “The evolution of vaccine certificates will actually drive the whole field of digital identity in the future. So, therefore, this is not just about Covid, this is about something even bigger.”
I write about the fortunes of Europe’s wealth amidst the continent’s political ups and downs. I cover billionaires and where their money ends up: The charities and philanthropic endeavours of the rich; the music and arts they support; the clubs and hobbies they accumulate. I have over ten years experience advising governments, companies and charities on the subject, and frequently write for other newspapers and magazines. You can follow me on Twitter @ollieawilliams or email me at ow[at] oliverwilliams.me