A closer look: what now for the government’s vaccine passport plans?

PublicTechnology examines the government’s strategy for offering a digital certification tool, and its key advantages and challenges

Transport secretary Grant Shapps yesterday confirmed news that many had been expecting: that the government will introduce a system of coronavirus vaccine certification, which will chiefly rely on a digital platform.

Perhaps more surprising was that Shapps indicated that the system will be delivered via the core NHS app – used by citizens to book GP appointments and access medical records – rather than the dedicated Covid-19 app used for contact tracing, venue check-in and coronavirus guidance. 

Officials later confirmed to journalists that the government plans to provide certifications of vaccinations and tests via the general NHS app, rather than the contact-tracing program.

One compelling reason for doing so is that, subject to access being granted by a patient’s GP, the NHS app already allows users to view records of all vaccinations they have received – including the coronavirus jab. This is an existing feature of the platform, that pre-dates the pandemic.

The app’s comparatively tiny user base, however, presents a challenge for the government.

Up-to-date figures are not publicly available – and the Department of Health and Social Care did not provide any to PublicTechnology – but, as of March 2020, 15 months after the release of the NHS app, it had been downloaded just 250,000 times. This equates to around 0.5% of the potential user base, which comprises every GP-registered citizen aged 13 and over.

By contrast, the NHS Covid-19 app had amassed 21.6 million users by the end of February, just five months after it became available. This means 86 people around the country already use the digital contact-tracing system for every one that uses the NHS app.

34 million
Number of people in the UK that have received at least one vaccine dose

Users of NHS app as of March 2020, 15 months after its release

21.6 million
Users of NHS Covid-19 app as of February 2021, five months after its release

17 May
Date on which citizens may be allowed to take overseas holidays

If the vaccine-certification system is to be used on a mass scale, the government will need to ensure it promotes uptake of the NHS app – particularly considering what is surely an inevitable confusion among those who will assume the status certification will be a feature of the widely-adopted Covid-19 program, rather than the little-used – and perhaps little-known – health-service wide app.

If the core application is set to grow its user base by as much as a hundredfold in the coming weeks and months, it will also need to ensure it is supported by adequate computing capacity.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the government said that whatever digital system is used, it will be complemented by an alternative option for those without the necessary technology.

“The government is working on providing individuals with the means to demonstrate their Covid status easily – through a digital route as well as a route for people who don’t have access to a smartphone,” they said. “Security and privacy will be at the core of our approach.”

The statement also suggested that the plans to adapt the NHS app for vaccine-certification are not quite as concrete as Shapps had seemed to indicate yesterday.

“Use of the NHS App is being considered as part of the digital route,” the spokesperson added.

Appy talk
The NHS app launched on 31 December 2018, when mobile and tablet versions were made available for public download in Apple and Android’s app stores.

Its debut came after a 15-month development process, prompted by an announcement from then health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who promised that the platform would “revolutionise the way we access health services”.

Even leaving aside the muted uptake, the app has fallen somewhat short of delivering on that promise.

Less than six months after release, plans for the program were scaled back. In June 2019, shortly after the creation of NHSX, the health technology agency’s inaugural chief executive, Matthew Gould, said that planned future work on new features would no longer take place.

“I don’t want us to make the NHS App all-singing and all-dancing,” he said. “In fact, I’m not sure we should add many more features than it already has. We will keep the app thin and let others use the platform that we have created to come up with brilliant features on top.”

As well as NHS health advice, the app offers users tools to book GP appointments, order repeat prescriptions, view their medical records, register for organ donation, and manage preferences for how their personal data is used.

The Covid-19 app, meanwhile, launched across England and Wales on 24 September, following an – occasionally fraught – six months of development work.

The platform is built on the Exposure Notification system jointly developed by Apple and Google, and adapted by many countries around the world. The platform works on a decentralised model in which data is not stored anywhere other than on users’ individual phones.

The government had previously tried to develop its own technology, using a centralised system that would have allowed public health officials to collate and analyse data.

Work on this technology was halted in June, however, when weeks of public testing revealed that the app worked only patchily on Android devices, and hardly at all on iPhones. The abandonment of the project came after several months of work and at least £15m spent on contracts with external providers alone.

But, once the second version of the app finally made it to release, uptake of the technology was quick and widespread; within a week, more than 10 million citizens had downloaded it, with user numbers approaching 20 million by the end of its first month. It is now used by well over half the eligible population.

The app is updated weekly and, since it launched, a number of new features and functionality improvements have been made. 

Additions to the program have been made to support the introduction of policies such as the tiering system – which was split by local-authority areas, and not postcodes, as the app previously was – and the launch of isolation payments for citizens of up to £500. 

The app was also amended to reflect the more widespread usage of lateral flow tests, which are quicker but somewhat less reliable than PCR tests. Users who enter a positive lateral flow test result are now encouraged to take a further PCR test to confirm the result.

Speaking to PublicTechnology last month, Wolfgang Emmerich – the UK boss of Zühlke UK, the main commercial partner in building the app – said that he expected his firm might be asked at some point to add a vaccine-certification function to the technology.

“The government is working on providing individuals with the means to demonstrate their Covid status easily – through a digital route as well as a route for people who don’t have access to a smartphone. Security and privacy will be at the core of our approach.”
Government spokesperson

Once a system of vaccine certification is up and running, the government hopes that this will better enable citizens to travel overseas – which, in theory, they will be able to do for non-essential purposes from as early as 17 May.

Government representatives in Spain, Greece, and Portugal have already indicated a desire to welcome UK holidaymakers this summer.

But, three months after leaving the EU, the UK will no longer benefit from the union-wide digital vaccine certificate currently being developed – about which European officials are also reportedly working with counterparts in the US to ensure appropriate cross-border recognition.

Earlier this week the European commission indicated that it had not had any contact with the UK on the issue of vaccine passports, and it is now understood that talks are taking place with individual countries, rather than with the EU as a whole.

“I’m working internationally with partners across the world to make sure that system can be internationally recognised,” Shapps told Sky News yesterday.

Before the next easing of restrictions, the government will publish a global traffic-light ranking of countries and territories, in which citizens can – in theory – travel freely to green-rated countries, subject to testing before departure and after return. 

Travellers returning from amber destinations will be asked to quarantine at home for 10 days, while those visiting red-listed countries will need to stay in a government-managed hotel.


Sam Trendall

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