As the vaccination rate in Australia rapidly approaches national targets, the issue of vaccine passports has moved to the fore of public debate.
In its simplest form, a COVID vaccine passport is an official certificate verifying the holder has had two doses of a COVID vaccine. NSW and Victoria are looking at incorporating vaccination status with their check-in apps. Another option is a digital certificate issued by the federal government.
The purpose of a vaccine passport is to limit access to certain activities to only those who have been vaccinated. While vaccine passports are relatively common for international travel, some places, like France, have adopted internal vaccine passports to assist in controlling the spread of the virus. Others, like some US states, have firmly opposed their use.
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr has come out against internal vaccination passports, suggesting this is not the path forward for the ACT. By contrast, the recent NSW roadmap relies heavily on this idea; effectively promising to end lockdown only for the vaccinated.
Recent CIS polling indicates significant public support for the idea. 55 per cent of respondents agreed with businesses requiring people to disclose their vaccination status and refusing to serve the unvaccinated. Just 30 per cent opposed this idea.
The support was even stronger for state governments refusing to allow unvaccinated people to enter their states, with 60 per cent in favour and just 27 per cent opposed.
Vaccine passports raise a number of issues worth exploring, including administrative and technical challenges, concerns over their effectiveness, and broader moral and ethical challenges.
In many respects, the administrative and technical challenges are the most pressing - but also the easiest to solve. While the check-in facilities used in NSW and Victoria can relatively easily be adapted to display vaccination status, this is not true for the ACT or other states.
This may push those states towards federal government digital certification, although the ABC has reported flaws in this system as well.
These obstacles are being reported as massive hurdles, but in reality they are the kind of issues that arise in the rollout of any new technology. As these devices become more sophisticated, the problems will be overcome.
Perhaps more importantly, it probably doesn't matter if one in 100 digital certificates are fake, nor if one in 1000 people have difficulty in displaying their status in their check-in app. The weak link in the chain is highly unlikely to be the technology. It will be the human element.
Businesses will likely be responsible for enforcing vaccine passport rules, as they are for enforcing check-ins. Anecdotal evidence suggests compliance is still below 100 per cent.
Some businesses will not check diligently, and some that do will be fooled by fake identification (similar to the occasionally inconsistent enforcement of responsible service of alcohol and underage drinking laws).
But the system doesn't need to be 100 per cent effective to be seen to work. In the end, vaccine passports may be more about symbolism than effective prevention of disease transmission.
Indeed, in NSW in particular, vaccine passports are being used to incentivise people to get vaccinated. By promising to reduce restrictions on those who are vaccinated (but not until a 70 per cent vaccine threshold is met), NSW is creating a clear divide between the rights of those who are vaccinated and those who are not.
This approach is not without flaws. Older, wealthier suburbs may be frustrated at continuing lockdown due to the lower vaccination rates in some regional communities, or more ethnically diverse, younger communities in Sydney's west.
But some of that difference stems from wealthier suburbs having earlier access to vaccination. It is not solely due to the vaccine hesitant, and those who have wilfully delayed getting vaccinated shopping for a preferred vaccine - who should neither get much sympathy nor delay the end of lockdown.
The bigger issue is the extent to which the vaccinated can be infected with COVID and transmit it to others. After all, if there was no difference in transmission rates between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, it's not clear there would be any benefit to vaccine passports.
The practical and theoretical evidence regarding this issue is mixed, however. Some studies have shown a lower rate of transmission from the vaccinated, though it is apparent the virus continues to circulate even in societies with very high vaccination rates.
All this being said, it is clear vaccine passports are not 100 per cent effective and represent a step away from the COVID-zero eradication policy that has been pursued in Australia since April last year.
Given this somewhat mixed report card, it's surprising the ethical issues around vaccine passports have not been explored to a greater extent in public debate.
Australia has seen a number of attempts to introduce a national ID card, like Bob Hawke's failed attempt to introduce the Australia Card in the 1980s.
The public has consistently opposed these kinds of invasions of privacy. However, in recent years the public has tolerated increasing privacy intrusions supposedly in the name of fighting terrorism and money laundering, for example metadata retention and access laws.
Like the check-in apps themselves, vaccine passports can be used as a crude surveillance tool. Police have already used QR code data to investigate crimes, and are pushing to do so more regularly.
Already during this pandemic we have abandoned other due-process protections. For example, people are now required to prove they have a good reason to leave their homes.
Moreover, vaccination status actually isn't the issue - it's merely a proxy for COVID status. Globally, the push in recent years has been to decriminalise and destigmatise those with health conditions.
It is one thing to isolate those reasonably suspected to have COVID, but quite another to treat the unvaccinated as "unclean", to be kept permanently separate from the "good" citizens.
Regardless, we are rushing towards the use of vaccine passports with scant consideration of these practical and ethical concerns. If there is one good sign, it's that vaccine rates are continuing to rise rapidly, regardless of whether passports are being suggested (like in NSW) or not (like in the ACT).
This means we may reach a stage where the unvaccinated are such a small minority that vaccine passports become effectively unnecessary.
In the meantime, we should be cautious to only accept vaccine passports as a temporary transition out of lockdowns - not a permanent feature of post-COVID life.
- Simon Cowan is research director at the Centre for Independent Studies and a regular columnist.