Vaccine passports ‘raise a number of human rights concerns’, watchdog warns

Written by Louise Wilson and Sam Trendall on 4 May 2021 in News
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Scottish Human Rights Commission voices fears over potential certification scheme

Credit: Jernej Furman/CC BY 2.0  

Plans for vaccine passports to access services and public spaces could further marginalise the most vulnerable parts of society, the Scottish Human Rights Commission has warned.

In a briefing to the Scottish Government last week, the commission urged it not to roll out such a scheme unless it was necessary and could be done in a way that is proportionate.

The UK government started trialling options for a Covid-19 status certificate in parts of England earlier this month. Last week it was confirmed that a certification system – set to be largely based on the NHS app – will be implemented across the country shortly. 

It is hoped that this will allow citizens to begin freely travelling overseas once more once the next set of restrictions is lifted – which could be within two weeks. There are, as yet, no plans to introduce any form of vaccine certification requirement for hospitality venues, although this has not been explicitly ruled out.

The Scottish Government, meanwhile, has not committed any such scheme but has confirmed it is exploring the possibility alongside the other four UK nations.

But the human rights watchdog said requiring certification to access essential services, transport and hospitality venues could be discriminatory towards those not able to get a vaccine or test. It warned this could “further exacerbate the inequities highlighted during the pandemic”, including the marginalisation of the homeless, refugees and migrants, and people living in poverty.

The briefing highlights that the World Health Organization has not yet confirmed vaccines are effective at reducing transmission of the virus, which it says should also be established before going down the route of Covid certification.


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The commission warned a scheme could “undermine confidence in vaccination among those who are already less likely to accept a vaccine, and to create a false sense of immunity protection beyond that actually achieved through vaccination.”

Regarding the suggestion that a negative test could also be used to provide certification, the commission said this would only be an alternative for those unable to be vaccinated if testing was made accessible and affordable.

The commission has made ten recommendations for the government before it decides whether to use, support or permit a certification scheme in Scotland. These include adopting a human rights-based approach, ensuring any scheme is necessary and proportionate, and making the measure temporary.

Judith Robertson, chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, said: “The possibility of using a Covid-19 certification scheme to access areas of society within Scotland raises a number of human rights concerns. It is vital that the Scottish Government takes its human rights obligations fully into account in considering this matter, proceeding only with the utmost caution.”

First minister Nicola Sturgeon has previously said ethical issues have to be carefully considered before Covid passports could be introduced.

Sturgeon said: “We all want to get back to normal so anything that can play a part in getting us back to normal is something we should think about very carefully, but nor should we just gloss over the practical or ethical issues that we have to think through properly. I think if we're going to have a system of vaccine certification, then it's really important that if the public has confidence in that.”

But others have challenged the proposal, warning it would be “divisive and discriminatory”.

Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie has said: “This is super ID cards by the back door. Vaccine passports will divide the country, effectively make vaccination compulsory and pave the way for a permanent ID card.”

Although the core NHS app – not, as was expected by many, the Covid-19 contact-tracing software – is set to be the primary means through which citizens in England can demonstrate their vaccination status, the UK government has stressed that alternatives will be available for those without a connected device.

“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,” a spokesperson said. “Security and privacy will be at the core of our approach. Use of the NHS App is being considered as part of the digital route.”

 

About the author

Louise Wilson is a journalist at PublicTechnology sister publication Holyrood, where this story first appeared. She tweets as @louisewilso.

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