While restrictions on travel could prevent coronavirus transmission in the short term, digital passports showing COVID-negative and vaccination status may help reopen airports and other badly hit areas of the economy.
In the longer term, the government hopes that digital passports that give a reliable indication of a person’s COVID-negative status, and/or vaccination status before flying could allow the travel and aviation industry to recover.
There is also the potential for the technology to be used to allow other industries such as hospitality and sport to restart, by ensuring those attending mass gatherings are free of the virus.
Perhaps most importantly it also provides a safe way for children and students to return to school, college, or university and resume their education without the disruption of lockdowns.
Such a scheme would work in tandem with vaccination to allow a gradual return to normal life over the coming months and years.
But getting the technology to work is taking time.
Singapore has become the first country to successfully pilot such a scheme, which uses blockchain technology to match a barcode-style digital passport with a test result. The UK government’s botched attempt to introduce a COVID-19 app was billed as one way to get the country back on its feet after similar schemes were used successfully in countries such as Singapore.
But the development of an app was beset with difficulties and the one now available is a watered-down version of the original idea, which was billed as a way to use mobile technology to track infection status and allow people to go about their business.
Apps have not been enough to prevent the lockdown measures that are slowing the spread of the virus but disrupting children’s’ education and ruining livelihoods.
But could digital immunity passports be the answer? Several companies are now making progress towards introducing the scheme, which in most cases would match a contemporaneous virus test with digital technology to allow passengers to demonstrate they are safe to fly before they board.
This is quickly scanned at a destination airport to give the all-clear before leaving the airport around the same time as passport and customs checks.
Developed by health and security provider International SOS and AOKPass, the app was first used to provide a digitally verifiable COVID-19 health certificate for entrance to Singapore.
The companies said that the ability to authenticate health records before border points of entry will allow the safe and efficient resumption of international travel during the global pandemic.
In the Singapore pilot, the technology was used to present a negative COVID-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) digital test result for arrival verification at Changi Airport’s immigration counters.
According to the companies, this was the first time an immigration authority has used a blockchain based, digitally verifiable health certificate, providing proof of concept for other schemes.
The system can be used alongside any form of testing and vaccination and allows secure validation of a passenger’s identity, COVID-19 status and test result.
The companies say that the passport can be “plugged into” NHS systems to meet the specific needs of directors of public health.
Other companies are catching on to the idea too – the airline Emirates announced only this week that it is the first in the world to trial a digital travel pass developed in partnership with the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Testing of the system, which matches PCR test results to an app to identify passengers who are safe to fly, will begin in April.
Digital passports, therefore, offer some hope of a return to normal, but not until the vaccination programmes are fully up and running and the virus is on the retreat.