You’ll need a vaccine whether you like it or not

Nov 27, 2020

Sixty-plus years ago when, as a student, I was making my first overseas trip, there was more hassle involved in getting the required ‘international certificates of vaccination’ certificate (issued by the Department of Health on behalf of the World Health Organisation) than there was in obtaining a passport. The little yellow booklet also received more careful inspection by airline and immigration/quarantine officers, before travel and on arrival overseas, than did my passport.

You couldn’t get on an aircraft to leave Australia or be allowed in to many overseas countries unless the booklet had the appropriate stamps, signatures and information appropriate to your destination. There were separate sections for smallpox, cholera and yellow fever vaccinations/revaccinations as well as pages at the end for ‘other’. (My final book, issued in 1977, but with one entry from 1993, included mention of typhoid, oral sabin and human immunoglobulin).

Each stamp included information about the laboratory where the vaccine was manufactured and, where appropriate, the batch number.

The past is about to revisit us, though technology will reduce the paperwork.

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce tells us that once his airline is flying overseas again, passengers will need to demonstrate that they have been vaccinated against coronavirus. It seems there will be no choice (for the prospective passenger). ‘What we’re looking at is how you can have the [proof of] vaccination in an electronic version of a passport that certifies what the vaccine is, if it’s acceptable the country you’re travelling to.

‘There’s a lot of logistics, a lot of technology that needs to be put in place to make this happen.’

But that work is already underway. The International Air Transport association (IATA) reported this week that it was in the final development phase of its IATA Travel Pass, a digital health pass designed to support the safe reopening of borders.

The pass is intended to help replace quarantine measures when borders are re-opened, with testing. According to IATA, its Travel Pass will manage and verify the secure flow of necessary testing or vaccine information among governments, airlines, laboratories and travellers.

IATA is calling for systematic COVID-19 testing of all international travellers and the information flow infrastructure needed to enable this must support:

  • Governmentswith the means to verify the authenticity of tests and the identity of those presenting the test certificates.
  • Airlines with the ability to provide accurate information to their passengers on test requirements and verify that a passenger meets the requirements for travel.
  • Laboratorieswith the means to issue digital certificates to passengers that will be recognized by governments, and;
  • Travellerswith accurate information on test requirements, where they can get tested or vaccinated, and the means to securely convey test information to airlines and border authorities.The Travel Pass is being designed as a ‘Contactless Travel App’ – allowing passengers to (1) create a ‘digital passport’, (2) receive test and vaccination certificates and verify that they are sufficient for their itinerary, and (3) share testing or vaccination certificates with airlines and authorities to facilitate travel. The app could be used by travellers to manage travel documentation digitally and seamlessly throughout their journey.

Some weeks ago, Prime Minister Scott Morrison speculated about what would happen when a coronavirus vaccine became available in Australia. His first response was that it would be ‘as mandatory as you can possibly make it’ for Australians, with only those with medical exemptions allowed to refuse it. However he soon backed away from this, saying ‘We can’t hold someone down and make them take it.’

There wasn’t much reaction at the time – there were lots of experimental vaccines being tested, but nothing on the immediate horizon. But suddenly, the issue is no longer hypothetical. One or two vaccines are likely to be available, and being used, within a few months – the end of March seems to be the furthest projection.

There will be no problems at first, with the vaccine only available to those prioritised by Commonwealth and State health officials (and ticked off by governments). Health-care workers first, then the most vulnerable (though in what order we don’t know yet). What we do know is that governments will be anxious to get the vaccine to as much of the entire population as they can.

There will be resistance. It will be loud and it will be supported by some extreme voices in the mainstream media as well as through the internet. Lots of conspiracy theories about world government or some ultra-rich guy trying to take over and manipulate our lives.

Ultimately, people may have a choice – but not, for example, if they want to travel overseas (perhaps a third of the population each year, once we get back into the swing of things), or send their children to a kindergarten or school, or use health facilities such as a hospital.

IATA’s travel pass or something like it will be adopted and adapted by governments, in one form or another, for domestic use. It won’t be quite like the identity card that Bob Hawke’s government tried unsuccessfully to introduce more than 30 years ago – it will be far more intrusive.

But you probably won’t be able to leave home without it.

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