Roll-out of digital vaccine passport not currently justified says Ada Lovelace Institute

February 18, 2021

As part of the work the Ada Lovelace Institute is doing to explore the evidence, risks and benefits of public and private sector vaccine passports and COVID status apps, it has convened a group of experts to produce a rapid review of the apps’ possible roll-out.

The Institute has now published an interim report summarising the findings and recommendations of the cross-disciplinary group. The group considered the risks and benefits of the potential roll-out of digital vaccine certification schemes. Its conclusions are:

  • At present, vaccination status does not offer clear or conclusive evidence about any individual’s risk to others via transmission, so cannot be a robust basis for risk-based decision making, and therefore any roll-out of a digital passport is not currently justified.
  • However, given that evidence on transmission will emerge, and other countries and companies are developing such systems, the UK government must act urgently to address the public policy issues that arise, and create clear and specific guidelines and law around any appropriate uses, mechanisms for enforcement and methods of legal redress.
  • While vaccine passports will be seen by some as a way to increase freedom, for those without a passport they would constitute a denial of liberties that others are being granted. Therefore, the justifications both for the relaxation of current restrictions for some, and also for their continuation for others, should be clearly articulated.
  • The UK government will need to take a clear position outlining the specific purposes and use cases for which, if any, vaccine passports can be legally and legitimately used.
  • In allowing some uses or actively facilitating vaccine passport apps, governments must address the issues and risks arising from such schemes or the creation of related digital infrastructure, and whether and how these risks could be mitigated.

The report recommends that the UK government:

  • Set scientific pre-conditions based on vaccine efficacy and transmission, durability and generalisability.
  • Identify the urgent use cases, such as for frontline workers and employment in general so that the benefits and risks can be assessed if the scientific pre-conditions are met.
  • Offer urgent clarification on the current legal status of the development and use of vaccine passports, especially regarding data protection, equality and discrimination, health and safety and employment law.
  • Consult a wide group of experts and perspectives including those likely to be involved in the practical implementation of any use case. According to the experts, this understanding is a necessary condition for both policy development and effective public engagement.
  • Engage the public on any potential uses to understand impacts, build trust and legitimacy, and understand what trade-offs the public is willing to make, particularly engaging with those groups who are likely to face disadvantage, discrimination or unique risks through the roll out of such technologies.
  • Work through the World Health Organisation on international travel use cases.

The Institute plans to publish a more detailed report in March 2021.