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England will launch its digital vaccine passport next week

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People in England will be able to use the National Health Service app as a vaccine passport from Monday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed today.

The digital certificates will be available from May 17, the same day that the country lifts its ban on non-essential travel. Holidaymakers who don’t have a smartphone will be able to request a paper version by calling the NHS helpline on 119.

“The certification, being able to show that you’ve had a jab, is going to be necessary for people to be able to travel,” Hancock told Sky News. “So, we want to make sure people can get access to that proof, not least to show governments of other countries that you’ve had the jab if they require that in order to arrive.”

The digital version will be displayed on the NHS app that was originally designed to book appointments and order repeat prescriptions, rather than the COVID-19 app that’s used for test and trace. To download the app, users need to be registered with a GP in England and aged 13 or over.

The app will initially only show the user’s vaccination record, although future updates will integrate their COVID-19 test results. The government says that vaccination status will be “held securely within the NHS App,” and only accessible via the NHS login service.

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The announcement will be welcomed by many holidaymakers hoping to travel abroad this summer, but their options remain limited for now.

“There are not many countries that currently accept proof of vaccination,” the government’s travel guidelines state. “So for the time being most people will still need to follow other rules when traveling abroad – like getting a negative pre-departure test.”

In addition, there are presently only 12 countries on the government’s green list of destinations that people can visit without quarantine on their return. However, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the restrictions will be reviewed every three weeks from May 17 “to see if we can expand the green list.”

Vaccine passports will initially be used for only international travel, but the government has previously suggested they may be later used for domestic venues such as pubs.

Civil liberties campaigners fear that approach will create a two-tier system in which some people can access freedoms and support that others are denied — with the most marginalized among us the hardest hit.

The Ada Lovelace Institute, a data ethics body, published a report yesterday that set out six requirements that governments must meet before permitting vaccine passports:

  1. Scientific confidence in the impact on public health.
  2. Clear, specific, and delimited purpose.
  3. Ethical consideration and clear legal guidance about permitted and restricted uses, and mechanisms to support rights and redress, and to tackle illegal use.
  4. Sociotechnical system design, including operational infrastructure.
  5. Public legitimacy.
  6. Protection against future risks and mitigation strategies for global
    harms.

With the momentum for vaccine passports building, the institute hopes that setting high thresholds for their use will ensure that they benefit society.

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