Covid Passports: A Good or Bad Idea?

by Sonia Hickey & Ugur Nedim
Covid Passport

Covid status certification is being developed in the United Kingdom while, in New York, it’s already a reality. And many believe it’s only matter of time before the Australian Government considers implementing similar requirements here.

The proposed UK Covid certification system would be similar to its counterpart in New York, in so far as it would record whether a person had been vaccinated, had recently tested negative to Covid or had natural immunity due to having already had the virus.

Breaking out of Covid

The UK Government says such a scheme is necessary in order to safely hold gatherings and events while Covid remains active in the community. After extensive lockdowns in Britain, businesses such as pubs, non-essential retail and restaurants, are scheduled to open in coming weeks.

In New York, a digital app known as the Excelsior Pass is already being rolled out, and large venues such as Madison Square Garden have committed to using it. 

A polarised public

Post-pandemic Governments around the world are seeking initiative ostensibly aimed at enabling large gatherings while minimising the likelihood of community transmission.

The ‘Covid passport’ is one of the mechanisms being harnessed, along with capped numbers to allow for effective physical distancing, and testing before events.

As news of Covid passports gains momentum on mainstream and social media, the public appears to be polarised over the idea.

Proponents of vaccine passports believe they offer a viable and effective way for people to remain safe while getting their lives back to a semblance of normality.

But restrictions on freedom of movement and freedom of association , and overall social control, have always been a concern.

Opponents of Covid passports believe that are an unwarranted, unjustified and ineffective way of combating the virus.

They express concerns that the acceptance of such social control is an effective way for those in power to condition the public to accept the ever-increasing incursions on basic democratic freedoms and legal safeguards – fearing that once these are removed they will be difficult to get back.

Many believe such measures simply don’t work, using as evidence the failed Australian Government Covid tracing app.

Getting back to business

Some proponents of the Covid passport suggest it could go a long way to keeping businesses viable.

A case in point is the annual Byron Bay Blues Festival, which was cancelled late last week only 24 hours before it was due to start because NSW Health Authorities deemed there was a high risk of community transmission if the festival went ahead. The decision was made after two infected Queenslanders travelled to Byron, and one local man had tested positive to the virus in the lead up.

Fifteen thousand people were expected at the event, some had already set up camp sites at the ground, and hundreds of small businesses – accommodation providers, food vendors and other suppliers were upended at the last minute. Artists and event staff also lost work.

There was widespread anger in Byron itself, because those people and businesses affected have no avenues for compensation.

JobKeeper is officially finished. Many insurance policies don’t cover the pandemic.

So many welcome measures – such as Covid passports – that might enable the show to go on, in terms of both events and businesses generally.

Privacy and social justice concerns

But opponents are also concerned about the security of systems used to run these certification schemes; especially given the Australian Government’s appalling track record on privacy, as evidenced by the Australian Census and My Health Record data breaches.

There are concerns around collection of, and access to, personal data, and how it may be used for ‘unintended purposes’ by government, other organisations or even hackers.

While the Covid passport is currently an ‘opt-in’ initiative in both the UK and New York, there are concerns it may become compulsory over time, particularly as international borders open up and people plan to travel overseas. Or if not formally compulsory, practically mandatory for anyone who want to attend events or travel.

Another concerns revolves around social justice, as the very nature of the passports is to encourage vaccination. In the USA, it’s well documented that African-American and Latina people are getting immunised for Covid-19 at much lower rates.

Some have expressed the view that the same situation could develop with Australia’s Indigenous population which, particularly in regional and remote areas, does not have equitable access to healthcare services.

Other groups, opponents say, could also be disadvantaged by a digital passport requirement such as the poor, the less technically literate, the aged – the list goes on.

Track record of protecting data and delivering results

As already stated, the Australian Government has an appalling track record of implementing national digital initiatives.

The 2016 national online census was a complete failure. My Health Record had a litany of problems. RoboDebt has also been disastrous.

And then there is, of course, the highly touted CovidSafe App, launched by the Prime Minister around this time last year.

Although there have been more than seven million downloads of the CovidSafe app, it only identified a total of 17 cases of Covid, and 81 close contacts of those 17 cases.

To the end of January this year, the Government had spent more than $6 million on developing, promoting and maintaining the app. The infrastructure continues to cost around $100,000 a month and taxpayers will bear the financial burden of this flop.

So many are concerned about whether a Covid passport scheme, the implementation of which will certainly cost taxpayers several million dollars, is the right way forward in a country where – fortunately – Covid is nowhere near as prevalent as in the US and UK.

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Authors

Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice, and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team.

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with over 20 years of experience as a criminal defence lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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