Covid vaccine pass for large events – Expert Reaction

vaccine certificate will be needed to get into large events this summer, from as early as November.

The pass will be mandatory for high-risk settings like music festivals, and possibly some hospitality venues. The Prime Minister has ruled out their use for accessing health care, supermarkets or dairies.

A new website called “My Covid Record” will go live soon (beta available here) giving people access to their vaccination records. Late this month Covid-19 test results will also be added to the website, and the certificates will be available to show or download from November.

The SMC asked experts to respond to this news. 

Professor Claire Breen, Faculty of Law, University of Waikato, comments:

“Vaccine certificates raise a number of legal questions around civil liberties and human rights, and will involve balancing various rights, such as the right to freedom of movement, the right to health, and the right to privacy, as well as the rights to equality and freedom from discrimination.

“Current border closures and restricted movements within the country show that these rights can be limited, but such restrictions must be justifiable. Equally, Te Tiriti o Waitangi must also inform such decisions so as to achieve equitable outcomes for Māori, in health and other areas that may be affected by the introduction of vaccine certificates.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr Andrew Chen, Research Fellow, Koi Tū – Centre for Informed Futures, University of Auckland, comments:

“The government has announced further details about vaccine certificates and how they might be used in Aotearoa. The key purpose is to reduce the level of risk around the spread of COVID-19 by limiting the opportunities for the virus to spread amongst unvaccinated individuals. There are two aspects of the vaccination certificate to consider – the technical side of how the certificate is generated reliably and securely, and the policy side of how the certificate is used to determine access to certain venues.

“It is important to note that this is a different system to the cards that individuals may have been given when they got their vaccination. The certificates being discussed are more resistant to fraud as they are generated from vaccination records held centrally by the Ministry of Health.

“A separate technical system and app are being used to provide vaccine certificates, rather than incorporating it into NZ COVID Tracer. This is primarily because NZ COVID Tracer is anonymous and does not rely on being tied to your identity, so a vaccine certificate that is unique to you would compromise that privacy-protecting design. Anonymity is also a requirement for using the Apple/Google Exposure Notification Framework which powers the Bluetooth Tracing part of NZ COVID Tracer. The system for vaccine and test certificates is called My COVID Record, and would be accessible via a website as well as a separate app.

“The accuracy of vaccination certificates depends on the integrity of the data in the COVID Immunisation Register (CIR), which is the central database of individuals and their vaccinations held by the Ministry of Health. There is a variety of information stored there (you can review the Privacy Impact Assessment here), some of which will be retrieved to generate vaccination certificates. The vaccination certificates are likely to follow standards set overseas, such as the EUDCC across the European Union.

“The Ministry of Health will then also need to release a “verifier” app that can scan the QR codes on vaccination certificates to check that they are legitimate, and that the person carrying the certificate is fully vaccinated. The government today said that this app would only show a status (such as a green check mark) and the person’s name, and not include other information that may be embedded in the QR code or available in the COVID Immunisation Register.

“Any vaccination certificate has to be usable by all people, regardless of whether they have access to digital technology or not. So it has to support a paper format primarily, which might be a card with a QR code and some information printed on it. Any app is simply for convenience so that people don’t have to carry an additional piece of paper around. It’s also possible that people may want to travel through different jurisdictions that require different certificate standards, and so the app would be helpful for generating further certificates that are backed by the same information from the CIR.

“The technical side is reasonably well thought through, and the Ministry of Health has been able to draw inspiration from experiences overseas.

“The policy side – around how the certificates will be used – appears to still be in flux as policy is developed and decisions are made. The government has indicated that vaccination certificates are primarily to be used in high-risk settings like large-scale events and potentially hospitality. It was reassuring to hear the Prime Minister note that the legal framework would include situations where vaccine certificates cannot be used, such as accessing healthcare facilities or buying groceries. This mitigates some of the human rights considerations – people need to have access to essential services, but they may have less of a case to demand access to a summer festival.

“There are still several outstanding policy questions to be considered. For example, there are different types of vaccinations with varying levels of efficacy available globally, so how they may or may not be recognised is important. In Australia, we also saw issues with people who had mixed vaccinations (e.g. one dose of AstraZeneca and one dose of Pfizer) not being marked as vaccinated in their certificate system. The use of vaccination certificates will also be seen as unfair for individuals who are unvaccinated for legitimate reasons, such as those with allergies to vaccination ingredients or those impacted by structural inequalities in the vaccination rollout. Māori and Pasifika have lower rates of vaccination at this stage, so the use of vaccine certificates may be discriminatory – the government needs to do all it can to make vaccinations more equitable. We also need to know more about when the use of certificates might be phased out (e.g. a sufficiently-high vaccination rate or a low-enough alert level).

“It is only under extraordinary circumstances with the current public health crisis that we can justify the use of certificates in this way. However, they can mitigate some of the risk associated with opening up and allow more people to be within “infection range” to each other. We will have to wait for further detail to see how any policy will deal with ‘edge’ cases that will inevitably crop up when certificates are rolled out across the entire population.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Andrew has had conversations with the Ministry of Health and Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in an academic capacity to provide advice, but has no financial relationship.”