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Which Countries Do This Well?

In Ontario, where I'm currently staying, a "vaccine passport" program went into effect two days ago. I just ate at a restaurant which didn't check for one but in principle they all have to. In Alberta, which has been much less careful, business can choose whether to check for vaccine passports or operate at a lower capacity. And in the United States, the recent executive order is forcing vaccine hesitant employees to take a rapid test once per week or finally get the vaccine.

Critics of these measures have tried to make them look more extreme by pointing out that there are European countries with no vaccine mandates whatsoever. What they forget to mention is that vaccine passports were only proposed out of necessity. If a country doesn't use them, this is more than likely because citizens welcomed the vaccine with open arms.

I have tried to find fault with vaccine passports many times but I keep coming up short. The billionaires most guilty of hoarding wealth are hoping that the appalling gains they've made off this pandemic will continue afterwards. The e-learning companies, which also saw a boom, are hoping that their newest exploitative practices enjoy a similar longevity. Could it be that discrimination based on immunization status is also part of a creeping erosion of civil liberties? I just can't get there. Every vaccine administered raises a vulnerable person's chances of survival. Letting members of our communities know that we've extended this courtesy is something we should be doing anyway. Overcoming the logistical hurdles in doing so is why we have elected officials.

All this is to say that I support the principle of vaccine mandates. But an implementation which thinks it's a good idea to use barcodes like this one risks doing more harm than good.

A mysterious QR code which the NHS told me to show regarding my vaccination.

I received this QR code after attempting to follow ridiculous instructions on the website of the National Health Service. As anyone who tries to scan it will quickly realize, this does not lead to a URL. Instead, it produces S2V5MVJF.MTIxMDkxMTAzMjhDb25ub3IgQmVoYW4.L2R0Mnlbcjzicj7GdCmaeMxnh5ZHFjiB8sa5WRYSUs6t63DsNfibABIE6uZA0oV9CjFag8cXx0o5-uYYhtxE_Q. Decoding this base 64 string, I can make out the word "Key" along with an expiry date and my name. If anyone has an app from the NHS which can interpret the other letters, I'd be curious to know what they mean.

The site that showed me this code gave me an option to download a PDF copy. Taking a look at this document, the first thing to notice is that it does not contain any additional information. The second strange thing is that its (equally unintelligible) QR code is actually different. But things really become funny when we look at the expiry date of September 11 2021. Since I downloaded this on September 9, why would it expire so soon? In fact, why would a record of a vaccination expire at all? There are four paragraphs of generic text which appear unmodified on everyone's coronavirus record. The fourth paragraph says "your 2D barcode expires 30 days after the date of issue" so maybe I need to teach the NHS that 9+30 is more than 11. The second paragraph contains some insight into what might be going on. It says "the duration of its validity depends on whether you were tested or vaccinated". This is stupid phrasing because taking a test doesn't undo a vaccination. But it suggests that there are two types of barcodes. One states that you have received a vaccine which takes a long time to expire and another says that you received a test which takes a short time to expire. Presumably, it's impossible to control which type is sent to you. I was looking for proof of vaccination. But because I had taken a test through the University of Oxford in early September and the NHS happened to know about it, they decided for me that what I really wanted was proof of having been tested. What a big help.

So far, I had been logging in using my NHS number. This is a number which should be given to any tax paying UK resident as soon as he or she tries to book an appointment for something. Instead, the process is full of bureaucratic delays. Things are better now with the rise of walk-in vaccination centres but originally the eligibility was not really proceeding by age. When my age group was called, this really meant people aged 30 and older who had a pre-existing relationship with the NHS. Other 30 year-olds were turned away and told that they should've started the process two months ago. I was not pleased with how long my NHS number took to arrive. But after I got it, I thought I would be able to use it for downloading a "Travel COVID Pass" just like I did for the "Domestic COVID Pass" discussed above. Not so.

The travel version asks you to scan all sorts of documents and film yourself holding them. One would expect that either your identity is sufficiently verified or it's not. Instead, the NHS is perfectly happy vouching for you domestically when they are mildly sure of your identity. But when you ask them to supply the exact same information to people in other countries, that's when they want to be more sure. I got a generic email stating that there was an unspecified problem with one of my document scans so I didn't find out what was in the travel pass. I probably never will because I finally found a sensible option called the paper version. For a reason I can't fathom, this cannot be downloaded. But after I requested one and waited 5 days for the mail, I finally got a sheet of paper which stated the dates of my two vaccinations in English.

So England does have what I'm looking for. It just has plenty of distractions as well. In case it's not obvious, here are the features that a decent immunity passport system should have.

  1. It should state in a human readable langauge whether the holder still needs to get the vaccine.
  2. If not, it should specify whether this is because of a vaccination, a medical exemption (like being too young) or a previous infection. The latter is especially important because, people with natural immunity (whether or not they've had the vaccine) are 6 to 13 times more protected than never infected people who've had the vaccine. People suing the jurisdictions which have yet to recognize natural immunity therefore have a strong case.
  3. If two or more of these reasons apply, the user should be able to choose which ones appear on the certificate.
  4. Which test results appear should also be part of this, assuming that the vaccinating authority also has access to a database of tests.
  5. Once the user has made this choice, the paper and electronic versions should be exactly the same.
  6. There should also be an option to have this information linked with other records so users won't have to bother bringing paper or electronic versions to certain venues. Namely those with the capability of scanning health cards or actual passports.
  7. The paper version, the URL linking directly to the electronic version and the consent to have records linked should all be handed out in person at the time of vaccination so that there is no doubt about whether this information is going to the right person.