Thursday, 21 Oct 2021

Vaccine passports: The questions that still need to be answered


This week, Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran became one of the first passengers in the country to use a digital health pass to board a plane.

Air New Zealand has been working with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) over the last few months, and Foran’s check-in marks a major step in redeveloping trust in the travel industry.

Knowing passengers are cleared to board will go a long way toward encouraging others to brave the confines of a plane for a flight – particularly amid the recent opening of the transtasman bubble.

This progress is, however, limited to airports and we are yet to see anything local resembling the vaccine passports (or digital health passes) being used across a wider spread of sectors in the international market.

This has repercussions for both the Australian and New Zealand governments worried about this bubble experiment failing and also for businesses which might be nervous about being caught at the centre of the next outbreak.

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Transport told the Herald that the Government is working with a range of partners on a number of proposals for a travel health pass as well as collaborating with IATA and the World Health Organisation on global standards for vaccine certification.

“Whatever system New Zealand travellers use, it will likely be a digitally based health passport which stores and shares all vaccination and testing information, in a secure fashion, with the health and border entry authorities of the countries people travel to,” the spokesperson said.

The Government is yet to release a timeline on when these discussions will be finalised and there still seems little indication that this will extend beyond aviation, but some New Zealand businesses are already taking on the vaccine passport challenge independently.

Over the last six weeks, a cross-disciplinary team at the Auckland-based creative agency DDB have been quietly working on the design of a digital interface that will allow for more than just getting on and off a plane.

In looking at international examples and mapping out their own plans, the team led by chief creative officer Damon Stapleton, digital expert Liz Knox and lead designer Carla Shale quickly realised certain fundamental questions need to be answered if a universally accepted digital vaccine passport is ever to be adopted at a global scale.

What is a vaccine passport? What does it do? How does it work locally? How does it work globally? Can it be used across businesses? What data will be stored? Where will that data be stored? And who should control the storage of that data?

These were just some of the questions Knox rattled off in elaborating on the fact that we currently have no global consensus of what a vaccine passport is or how it works.

She notes that while China has latched its version on to WeChat, Israel has developed a bespoke “green pass” app that gives vaccinated people access to certain facilities.

The utility of both these examples extends well beyond the simple idea of boarding a plane (a process that has historically been in place for some time through the pre-requisite of yellow fever vaccines for travellers arriving from certain destinations). Vaccine passports in Israel and China can give people access to businesses, locations and other areas of interest. Without the green light, you often can’t access services in those countries.

Recent international reports indicate the British Government is currently looking at whether a similar app could be rolled out across the United Kingdom as more and more people are vaccinated.

The major problem, Stapleton says, is that there’s currently nothing tying these disparate efforts across the world together, necessitating the download of a new interface with every move into a new country.

There is currently no shared dataset between different countries on which a system of trust can be built. The best so-called vaccine passports we have at the moment are disconnected iterations and apps being developed across different platforms in different countries at a time when people are receiving one of a number of different vaccines.

We don’t even have a global consensus on which vaccines we do and don’t trust. When the world’s borders start opening again to the vaccinated masses, will New Zealand, for instance, trust the efficacy of the Sputnik vaccine and should the type of vaccine also be recorded in our digital vaccine passports? And the big follow-on question is whether businesses will have the right to reject those who haven’t been vaccinated – or, perhaps, even those who have received the wrong vaccine.

Stapleton says the businesses that will drive the adoption of vaccine passports are those who will need it the most. Concert promoters, theatre companies, stadiums, travel firms and hospitality companies are all particularly vulnerable to an outbreak.

“I think these businesses will drive it in the shorter term, but we need to think now about how it functions in the longer term because I don’t think Covid-19 is going to be a one- or two-year affair,” says Stapleton.

Bureaucrats have historically reached consensus on major issues like the requirement of standard travel passports, but Shale notes that it took 50 years to get to that place.

We simply don’t have the luxury of that time when it comes to navigating our way through the pandemic.

Any vaccine passport developed will have to be responsive to policy being tweaked and altered as the pandemic develops on a week-by-week basis.

Only a few weeks in, Knox has already seen how this shifting framework can throw a series of unexpected challenges at the digital design team.

“The pace with which this is changing globally is just insane. Every week you need to look at your thinking again to make sure you’re still on the right track,” she says.

The team is still in the development phase and not yet ready to roll the concept out, but they see no point waiting years for the wheels of the bureaucracy to turn.

“Do we really want to rely on two civil servants in a small room to deliver this?” asks Stapleton, stressing that governments are often too insular and slow-moving to deliver the type of innovation needed in this instance.

“I think the people that will solve these problems are those who have a variety of capabilities. You need a lot of expertise in one room to build something that’s good and also appealing to human beings.”

Digital tech studios and creative agencies have already shown their worth during this pandemic, with Rush Digital developing the local Covid app for the Ministry of Health and then going on to advise the British Government on the development of its app.

The challenge with a vaccine passport is far bigger because of the complexity and the global implications, but there’s no reason why New Zealand shouldn’t be giving it a crack.

The alternative will be to wait around for Google, Facebook, Amazon or Apple to develop an additional tool that will eventually be sucked into their walled gardens and become part of the data treasure troves these companies already control.

Shale says that there has to be a collective agreement about where the data is stored to allow the individual sufficient transparency to know who has accessed their data. Blockchain technology, she says, could play a major role in ensuring a decentralised approach to data storage. Once again, this is all contingent on buy-in from as many countries as possible.

Earlier this week, the Financial Times reported that the world was watching the transtasman bubble in anticipation of rolling out a similar template abroad.

The missed opportunity here is that the world should perhaps also have been watching the rollout of a community-based vaccine passport shared between two countries.

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