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Digital COVID-19 Vaccination Certificate to Be Rolled Out in New Zealand

New COVID-19 outbreaks in New Zealand are emphasising stark global inequities in access to vaccines and other options for combating the pandemic. However, this burden is now being exacerbated by another form of inequality: the growing popularity of the COVID-19 or vaccine passport, such as the new Digital COVID Certificate. The push for new pandemic-related health credentials is coming primarily from developed countries, where there is an understandable desire to pave the way for re-booting damaged economies.

New Zealanders will soon be able to view a digital proof of their COVID-19 vaccination. A government-run app, colloquially known as a “vaccine passport“, will soon be as necessary for international travel as a real passport. In many countries, they are already required to sit at a bar or watch a sporting event. An airline has unveiled plans for a travel passport that will allow passengers to board flights without bringing additional proof of immunisation to the airport. However, Air New Zealand has said it won’t mandate vaccine passports but expects clients will keep track of requirements.

The Prime Minister of New Zealand says the country is still on track for a staged border opening next year, with the Ministry of Health confirming vaccine passports will be available in December. The original plan, announced last month, called for a limited trial run of vaccinated international visitors to be able to self-isolate at home in the latter part of this year. Following that, a phased reopening would take place in 2022. The plan relied heavily on the risk-profiling of countries so that areas with high rates of vaccination and low levels of COVID-19 could be treated differently than areas where the virus was prevalent.

The Ministry of Health has confirmed that New Zealanders will be able to obtain vaccine passports later this year. “It will include a QR code as well as a secure digital signature, or “seal.” Certificates will be able to be printed in hard copy or stored and viewed on a smartphone,” said the COVID-19 vaccination programme’s group manager of operations. He stated that the Ministry of Health was developing the digital vaccination certificate to be compatible with emerging international standards in order for it to be recognised by as many countries as possible.

The new app, which is currently in development, would allow a single user to create an account and upload health records, such as vaccination and testing data. The move would bring New Zealand more in line with other countries around the world, such as China and the European Union, which already have what are known as ‘vaccine passports,’ which provide digital vaccination certification, including with a QR code. The update follows enquiries to the Ministry of Health about the vaccine’s lack of digital certification, which is affecting New Zealanders living abroad. For the time being, New Zealanders must rely on a letter from the Ministry of Health or their own GPs.

Following months of consultations, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published its technical specifications and implementation guidance for “Digital Documentation of COVID-19 Certificates: Vaccination Status” last month. As governments around the world deploy their own COVID-19 certificates, the global health agency’s guidance was expected to establish a global approach that prioritises public health.

As a result, people would expect WHO to define what these certificates should entail, what data must be collected, and, most importantly, what issues must be considered to ensure that individuals are not harmed and that the right to health is respected, promoted, and protected. Some of these expectations are met by the guidance released today. Notwithstanding, it demonstrates how governments should consider safeguards and protections, as well as the risks associated with using certificates.

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