As the world starts to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and global travel slowly opens up again, many countries are considering a system whereby travelers can prove their vaccination status to facilitate travel across borders. In fact, some countries have already done so.
COVID-19 travel certificate systems involve digital or physical records of a person’s COVID-19 status. Though sometimes known as COVID-19 ‘passports’, these systems certify a traveler’s health records only and do not in themselves grant travel or entry permissions. The app or certificate may include information about vaccinations, PCR test results, or immunity through previous infection, among other details. The systems are intended to allow government authorities, transportation companies and other entities to assess whether an individual meets the COVID-19 travel requirements and whether they can be granted permission to enter the country or access services.
Many countries are grappling with the legal and ethical considerations of instituting a COVID-19 travel certificate system, as well as potential data privacy concerns. A patchwork of solutions exists to this complex situation.
A wide range of organizations are currently planning or developing versions of a COVID-19 travel certificate system; these include the EU, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and many private companies and national governments. While these systems have the potential to streamline travel across borders, none is universally accepted by government authorities or airlines, and there is no accepted international standard for such systems. The success of a particular system will depend on addressing these issues.
Let’s take a look at some of the systems in place across the world, and explore how companies can find their way through the maze of approaches and requirements.
On 14 June 2021 the legislative process for the Regulation on the EU Digital COVID Certificate (EUDCC) was completed at an official signing ceremony attended by the presidents of the European Parliament, the Council of the EU and the European Commission. The aim of the EUDCC is to facilitate safe travel across Member States without quarantine requirements. The certificates are already being issued in several EU Member States, including Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and Spain, as well as Iceland. They will become available in all EU Member States as of 1 July 2021, in both the EU and Schengen zone countries.
The EUDCC provides proof that a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19, received a negative test result or recovered from COVID-19. It is issued free of charge and available in digital and paper formats both in a national language and in English. It consists of a QR code and a digital signature.
Vaccination certificates will be issued to a vaccinated person for any COVID-19 vaccine. When waiving free movement restrictions, Member States will be obliged to accept vaccination certificates for any vaccines which have received EU marketing authorization and may choose to extend this to EU travelers who have received another vaccine. Member States may also decide whether they will accept a vaccination certificate after one vaccine dose or only after a full vaccination cycle has been completed.
Third-country nationals, such as US citizens, resident in an EU Member State are able to obtain an EU Digital COVID Certificate for travel to countries in the EU. Effective 19 July, Ireland will accept the EU Digital COVID Certificate for travel from within the EU/EEA.
In the United Kingdom, the National Health Service (NHS) has the COVID Pass app for travelers from England to prove their vaccinated status at border controls. To use the app, the individual must be registered with a General Practitioner in the UK and be over the age of 13. Scotland has a downloadable vaccine status letter, soon to be replaced with ‘COVID Status Certificates’.
In Africa, the African Union is piloting a Trusted Travel Pass for travel between African Union countries. In the APAC region, Bahrain has a digital COVID-19 vaccine passport app for fully vaccinated citizens, while Malaysia has a digital health passport which allows travel only in its travel bubble with Singapore. In the Americas, Panama has introduced a digital vaccination card, with similar downloadable vaccination passport apps being planned in Brazil and Chile.
In contrast, in the United States many states have already passed laws that forbid the use of vaccine passports within their state, including Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Montana, Texas, South Carolina and South Dakota. There are no plans to implement a national COVID-19 passport within the US at present, as some states have apps that allow citizens to show they are vaccinated to access services, such as the Excelsior Pass in New York State. These apps only work for an individual who has been vaccinated in that particular state, and there is no national database as yet.
In Israel, the Green Pass was issued by the Israeli Ministry of Health from February 2021 to show vaccination against or recovery from COVID-19 and allow access for citizens to businesses and institutions required to comply with Green Pass restrictions as the country eased out of lockdown. However, the Green Pass system has been discontinued as of 1 June 2021 as the majority of the population over 50 has been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19.
Companies are encouraged to examine the potential benefits and issues surrounding COVID-19 travel certificate systems as they balance their business travel needs with the changing restrictions and requirements.
Employers are increasingly considering the potential benefits and problems of COVID travel certificate systems. Questions to ask include:
- Who exactly in the organization may require proof of their COVID-19-related health status, and for which travel and immigration purposes?
- What access do people in the organization have to vaccines and healthcare (depending on, for example, their nationality, country of residence, their age, income and beliefs)?
- Does a particular system sufficiently address international data management laws and the privacy concerns of users?
- Which systems facilitate the organization’s specific international travel and immigration requirements?
- Which systems meet broadly recognised standards, yet are resilient and flexible enough to adapt to the ongoing development in scientific understanding of COVID-19 and rapid changes in government requirements?
As these systems continue to be developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, employers are likely to encounter these and similar issues in planning their global immigration and business travel programs.
DISCLAIMER: This publication is not intended as a substitute for legal advice. Readers are reminded that immigration laws and regulations on COVID-19 travel restrictions are subject to change. We are not responsible for any loss arising from reliance on this publication.