There’s nothing simple about vaccine passports

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At first glance, a vaccine passport seems like a pretty simple idea. Once you’ve had both your COVID-19 shots, the federal government issues you with a digital record showing that you’ve been jabbed. Your state government could then link this information to its QR code system and voila, when you check in, the business or public venue you’re entering will record that you’ve been fully immunised.

This is the plan before national cabinet. The linked-up system isn’t up and running yet, but more than 7 million Australians have been fully vaccinated and can now access their Australian Immunisation Record online and download a federal digital COVID-19 certificate, which can be carried on a smartphone. But once you get past the logistics of how to access this proof of immunisation, the simplicity of the idea gives way to a dazzling array of complex questions: Where will they be required? Who will police their implementation? What happens if somebody challenges them? How long will they be used for?

Politicians and health officials have rightly pushed vaccination as the way out of the crisis of repeated lockdowns and have flagged that people who choose to get vaccinated will enjoy more freedoms than those who choose not to. At first, debate about vaccine passports focussed on rebooting international travel, but now they are being contemplated for almost all public activities, including going to the cinema, the pub or a cafe.

There is majority community support for vaccine passports, with last week’s Resolve Political Monitor poll showing 73 per cent of people agreeing that “a vaccine passport or certificate to prove you have had a jab is a good idea”. But as we get closer to our 70 per cent and 80 per cent vaccination targets for re-opening the economy, there is growing disquiet about how this system will work in practice. The Age’s national affairs editor, Rob Harris, reported on Monday that opposition is hardening within the federal Coalition against businesses mandating proof of vaccination for customer entry into cafes, restaurants and public events.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison supports proof of vaccination, saying it is sensible and nothing to do with ideology, but he won’t commit his government to introducing laws defining how and when it should be used. Instead, the PM, who prefers not to use the term “vaccine passport”, backs businesses themselves to implement and police certificates under existing property laws, which on the face of it allow a proprietor to ask a customer for proof of vaccination and refuse entry if that customer cannot comply. Mr Morrison argues, correctly in our view, that businesses have the right to protect their workers and clients.

His approach is not dissimilar to that on mandatory vaccination for staff in workplaces, where business will have to make the call within the framework of existing workplace laws.

Mr Morrison has said vaccinations should not be mandatory in Australia. France introduced a Health Pass system requiring proof of vaccination or a negative test to access long-distance train travel, cafes and large shopping centres. It has been met with protests for the past seven weeks, although many businesses support it. Amnesty International and the World Health Organisation, among others, are concerned that vaccination passports will create a two-tiered society, made up of those who are vaccinated and those who are not.

These are reasonable questions for us, as a society, to consider. What will happen to those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or whose faith prevents them from doing so? Would we exclude them from shopping in a supermarket or having a meal at a restaurant? Perhaps a negative rapid antigen test could help those for whom vaccination is not a viable option. There are other groups who may not have had easy access to two vaccinations when it comes time to open up. We must ensure they are not discriminated against in their everyday lives and that they have the opportunity to receive the vaccine.

Overwhelmingly, there is agreement that vaccination is the way out of the quagmire of lockdowns and the best way to ensure the community remains safe from the threat of disease. The business sector supports vaccination passports to protect staff, workers and families. It seems likely businesses will be the ones on the front line making the day-to-day decisions about using these certificates.

It’s a heavy burden and more leadership on this matter from the Prime Minister would be welcome. Mr Morrison should let businesses know they have the backing of the government to make hard calls. And, if it comes to it, the government should be ready to give them the legislative support they need.

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