COVID-19 has dramatically disrupted international mobility: border closures, visa restrictions, quarantine requirements and flight suspensions have played havoc with the cross-border movement of people and delivery of services, putting many sectors of the Australian economy at risk.
The Australian federal and state governments have taken impressive action to cushion the economic fallout, to minimise job losses and to build recovery in 2021 and beyond, but more needs to be done.
The Australia China Business Council (ACBC) believes that real recovery will only be possible when our borders open again. This requires global co-operation and evidence-based solutions so travel restrictions can be safely lifted.
There is a growing consensus that digital vaccine passports (also known as COVID-19 vaccine passports or digital health passes) may be the quickest and most efficient way of resuming international travel. Indeed, various forms of digital vaccine passports have been trialled by governments, industry associations and firms around the world in recent months.
In Australia, the federal government is assessing options, and, at a business level, Qantas is reported to be testing two digital apps to check passengers’ medical history as part of its plans to resume international travel. One app is the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Travel Pass and the other is CommonPass, an app proposed by an organisation linked to the World Economic Forum.
Other technical solutions are well advanced and being rolled out in different parts of the world. The International Chamber of Commerce has launched its AOKpass. The United States and Britain are among countries currently considering issuing similar vaccine passports, while the European Union is also working on a vaccine “green pass”, and this week China launched its own digital travel pass.
Digital vaccine passports will likely require verification that travellers have received a trusted COVID-19 vaccine and have mechanisms that link details of the vaccination with identity, while at the same time managing concerns around security and personal data.
The security of data is core to the success of any solution in the longer-term. For that reason, we welcome the solutions mentioned above as they each use decentralised blockchain technology to verify and provide security. Blockchain technology ensures there is no central database that can be hacked to access personal information.
As Australia moves toward support for a solution that works best in Australian conditions, we reiterate the importance of blockchain technology to underpin the security framework.
This leaves mutual recognition arrangements as a critical next step towards the re-opening of international borders.
Given the speed with which vaccine passport solutions are being developed around the world, there will be no one solution that will work for all, but it is important there is a globally consistent and standardised approach to minimise complexity. This is particularly critical regarding equivalent treatment of different vaccines and mutual recognition and acceptance of vaccination certificates.
ACBC National President David Olsson observed that “we need a common approach to trusted, reliable and verifiable vaccine certificates that would allow people to use their records around the region.” He noted that “for Australia, the economic imperative is clear. We need to find a way to replace the current compulsory quarantine measures and travel bans so we can reopen borders to tourists, students and business travel, and allow vaccine certifications to be useable in health systems across the Asian region and beyond.”
In the context of strained relations with China, ACBC encourages the Government to consider COVID-safe international travel arrangements in close collaboration with China, particularly given the importance of the Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines in China and across the Indo Pacific.
The interests of the broader Australian community would be best-served by the development of COVID-safe travel protocols that facilitate rather than impede the resumption of international travel in a region that is so important to Australia’s economic prosperity.
Mr Olsson said the issue provided a “timely opportunity for Australia and China to come together and talk about the management of health issues and how we can work together on recommended standards and procedures for a regional vaccine passport and mutual recognition of vaccines”.
Of course, these decisions need to be guided by the science and the ACBC supports the leadership of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to lead multilateral collaboration to establish a governance framework and common architecture for the issuance and verification of vaccination passports and to establish standards and protocols to regulate the way in which the various solutions operate together.
We would welcome Australia and China collaborating with the WHO on agreed science that hopefully results in vaccines delivered in both Australia and China being included on the IATA list of trusted vaccine providers.
ACBC urges the federal government to prioritise policies supporting a safe return of international travel. They include:
The deployment of a digital vaccine passport that is crafted to meet the needs of the Australian people and business community, that is developed in conjunction with our most important regional trading nations and which operates in a global framework administered by an international health body, would revitalise the restoration of safer international mobility, revitalise services trade and boost Australia’s economic recovery.