As the COVID-19 vaccination rollout continues to gather pace across the world, we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. With the increased adoption of vaccination passports worldwide, more domestic activities and international travel have resumed.
What Is a Vaccine Passport?
A COVID-19 vaccine passport is a record that proves that you have been vaccinated against COVID-19, and that gives you permission to enter foreign countries. It may also show that you have tested negative for the virus.
Despite its name, a vaccine passport is not an actual passport book. Generally, it is an electronic record of your vaccination status, possibly in the form of a QR code, that is easily accessible through a smartphone or stored on the device. However, the record can also be printed out.
In recent times, proof of vaccination, which can be shown through the use of vaccine passports, have become essential for international travel.
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Benefits of Vaccine Passports
Vaccine passports are a means of promoting the reopening of a country’s borders to the rest of the world.
Vaccinations offer protection against the virus and thus, by showing proof of vaccination using a vaccine passport, one may be able to bypass mandatory quarantine requirements. This loosens travel restrictions and may even relax entry requirements currently present in many countries, such as incoming travellers having to undergo a swab test and test negative before being allowed into the country.
Easing travel restrictions will also provide much-needed relief to the tourism and hospitality sectors, which have been badly hit by the pandemic, thereby boosting the economy as well.
How to Get a Vaccine Passport
The design and features of vaccine passports may vary from country to country. However, the process of obtaining one is generally the same.
The traveller must first be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, or test negative for the virus (depending on the country’s requirements for issuing a vaccine passport). They can then download a passport application to his or her mobile phone and create an account using biometric authentication, such as thumbprint or Face ID.
Alternatively, the traveller may need to upload proof of their vaccination status or negative test result to an online portal for authentication.
After the relevant certifications have been uploaded and/or authenticated, the traveller will be able to obtain a vaccine passport that is ready for use.
Recognition of Vaccine Passports in Singapore
Vaccine passports have been rolled out in Singapore in the form of HealthCerts. These HealthCerts are digitally authenticated and endorsed by the Ministry of Health, and are available in two forms:
- The Pre-Departure Test (PDT) HealthCert confirms that the traveller has tested negative for COVID-19 prior to departure from Singapore; and
- The Vaccination HealthCert confirms that the traveller is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 prior to departure from Singapore.
The HealthCert will help facilitate inspection and verification of a traveller’s COVID-19 test result or vaccination status by both local and overseas border authorities. It may be presented as a softcopy QR code image on the traveller’s mobile phone but can also be printed out.
Depending on what the destination countries require for entry, outbound travellers from Singapore may have to test negative for COVID-19 and/or show that they have been vaccinated against COVID-19. These travellers would then have to obtain either the PDT HealthCert and/or the Vaccination HealthCert, respectively.
To obtain the PDT HealthCert, travellers must first take a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test, an Antigen Rapid Test (ART) or a serology test. The table below summarises the differences between each test.
|What the test detects
|Aim of test
|Detects presence or viral nucleic acid sequences
|Diagnosis of COVID-19
|Detects presence of viral proteins
|Diagnosis of COVID-19
|Drawing blood samples
|Detects presence of antibodies against COVID-19
|Check for past infections
On the other hand, travellers have to be fully vaccinated in Singapore in order to obtain the Vaccination HealthCert.
Travellers may then authenticate their negative test result or vaccination status to receive the relevant HealthCert via the Notarise portal.
Vaccinated Travel Lanes
Under the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme, fully vaccinated travellers can enjoy quarantine-free travel between Singapore and a number of countries. These countries include but are not limited to Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and South Korea (from 14 November 2021 at 23:59).
To qualify for the VTL, travellers must show digitally certifiable proof of vaccination issued by Singapore (e.g. Vaccination HealthCerts for those vaccinated in Singapore) or the VTL country. This effectively requires travellers to produce recognised vaccine passports to take advantage of the VTL.
The table below shows the accepted proof of vaccination from a few VTL countries.
|European Union countries
|EU Digital COVID Certificates
|National Health Service (NHS) COVID Passes
|SMART Health Cards
|COOV mobile application
For more information on the VTL, you may visit the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority’s website.
International Air Travel Association Pass
Singapore also accepted the International Air Travel Association (IATA) mobile travel pass for entry into Singapore from 1 May 2021 onwards.
The IATA Travel Pass is a mobile application that helps travellers store relevant COVID-19 test results or vaccine certificates that will allow them to enter the destination country.
To enter Singapore for example, travellers have to obtain a negative PCR test result.
Using the IATA Travel Pass, travellers will be able to share their PCR test results with their airline and at the immigration checkpoints at Changi Airport before entering Singapore.
The authorities have also worked on further enhancements to the travel pass, such as:
- Enabling QR code scanning for the transmission of health credentials, and
- The inclusion of digital vaccination certificates in the travel pass.
Positions of Other Countries on Vaccine Passports
China was among the first in the world to introduce a COVID-19 vaccine passport for its citizens. Its vaccine passport shows that an individual has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as well as his/her PCR and serology test results.
The digital version of China’s vaccine passport uses an encrypted QR code that allows the authorities to access one’s medical records. However, the vaccine passport can also be printed out for use as a hardcopy document.
The vaccine passport is not mandatory for Chinese citizens, but China is presently negotiating with other countries for the mutual recognition of vaccine passports for travellers.
United States of America (USA)
In the US, there is no federal mandate for vaccine passports for its own citizens. It is up to individual states to decide whether vaccine passports are to be rolled out.
Presently, 10 states in the US are receptive to the use of vaccine passports, including New York, California and Hawaii. However, 20 states have officially banned the usage of vaccine passports, including Florida and Texas.
Each state’s vaccine passport (if available) may also vary in feature and form as they are being developed separately by different private companies, though they may have largely similar functions.
The first state to introduce a vaccine passport was New York. Known as the “Excelsior Pass”, the passport may be attained if one has been fully vaccinated or has obtained a negative PCR or antigen test administered in New York, New Jersey or Vermont.
The Excelsior Pass is stored in smartphones using the Excelsior Pass’ “Wallet App” but can also be printed out. Each pass will contain a secure QR code that will be scanned so people can gain entry to certain events and spaces, as well as gather in larger groups.
SMART Health Cards
On top of vaccine passports launched by each state, SMART Health Cards are also being rolled out across the US. So far, it is available only state-wide in New York, California, Hawaii, Louisiana and Virginia.
The SMART Health Card is yet another form of the vaccine passport but is standardised across all states that adopt it. It comes in the form of a digital or printed QR code that provides proof of vaccination or displays COVID-19 test results.
As mentioned previously, the SMART Health Card is the only proof of vaccination from the US that is recognised for entry into Singapore under the VTL.
European Union (EU) countries
The European Union has launched the EU Digital COVID Certificate for European citizens and residents. Non-EU countries may also apply to the European Commission to connect to the Certificate scheme. The vaccine passport certificates issued by these countries will then be valid in the EU. Currently, the Certificate has been standardised across all 27 countries in the EU, unlike in the USA.
Though officials have said that the Certificate is not a vaccine passport, it works in essentially the same way. This is because the Certificate can exempt holders from quarantine restrictions in countries that recognise it.
It is not necessary for one to be vaccinated to get the Certificate, as it can also be obtained by testing negative for COVID-19 or by recovering from COVID-19.
The Certificate may be in a physical or digital form. Like many other vaccine passports, it also contains a QR code which can be stored in paper and digital form.
The Certificate is not mandatory for travel within the EU, but simply helps to facilitate the verification of medical records at national borders. However, it is one of the required and accepted forms of proof of vaccination for entry into Singapore under the VTL.
Concerns and Risks Associated With Vaccine Passports
Though vaccine passports are expected to bring great benefits, there are also concerns associated with their implementation.
As vaccines are still being rolled out progressively, there are those who have yet to be vaccinated. Some may also be unable to be vaccinated due to health reasons, such as having previously experienced allergic reactions to other vaccines. These individuals will therefore be unable to obtain a vaccine passport.
Additionally, some vaccines may not be recognised in certain countries. For instance, Chinese vaccines are presently not approved in the US or Western Europe. This may render some individuals’ vaccine passports, as obtained after being vaccinated using a particular COVID-19 vaccine, invalid.
Denying such individuals the opportunity to travel when they have good reasons for doing so simply because they do not have a vaccine passport (or a recognised one) may come across as unfair. There is thus a need to avoid discriminating against these individuals.
The EU has addressed such issues by allowing these individuals to travel within the EU if they have recently tested negative for COVID-19, but this may not be the case for all other countries.
Data privacy concerns
Given the sensitive nature of health data that may potentially be accessed and stored with the usage of vaccine passports, it is unsurprising that some have expressed concerns regarding data privacy.
However, developers of vaccine passports have been quick to address these concerns. For instance, IATA has maintained that the IATA Travel Pass technology is decentralised. This means that there is no central database and all the necessary information is stored securely on the traveller’s phone.
Travellers using the IATA Travel Pass thus have greater autonomy over when and with whom they wish to share their vaccination status or test results.
Risk of fraud
As the adoption of vaccine passports increases, the risk of related fraudulent activity occurring increases as well. This is because there are people who have yet to be vaccinated, or do not want to be vaccinated, but still wish to enjoy the benefits of having a vaccine passport, such as being able to travel overseas.
Consequently, they may resort to underhanded means to obtain proof of vaccination, such as forgery. There are also numerous websites on the dark web offering false documents for sale.
Some commentators have thus suggested that the certification in the vaccine passport should be verifiable and difficult to forge.
Vaccination does not equal immunity
Vaccine passports may provide a false sense of security as it does not guarantee that travellers are “safe”. This is because vaccination does not guarantee immunity against COVID-19.
For example, those who have been fully vaccinated may still be susceptible to the virus. While vaccination greatly reduces the risk of infection, the strength of immune response varies across individuals. Some individuals’ immune systems may not be able to mount an adequate response even after these individuals have been vaccinated.
Additionally, it has yet to be seen how long immunity against the virus will last. It is also possible for vaccinated individuals who have been infected to still transmit the virus to other individuals.
All this means is that it is entirely possible for a person with a vaccine passport to still become infected with and transmit COVID-19 to others, and especially across borders if they are travelling overseas.
Overall, despite the various risks, the use of vaccine passports may bring us one step closer to normalcy by easing border restrictions for more international travel to take place.
As more people around the world become fully vaccinated against COVID-19, it is likely that there will be a more widespread use of vaccine passports. However, it remains to be seen if there will be an international standard for vaccine passports, or a standardised vaccine passport that will be adopted by all countries.