Despite India's hesitation, former aviation minister bats for Covid vaccine passports

With the Covid numbers reducing considerably, India would do well to align with a globally recognised digital vaccine passport regime

Despite India's hesitation, former aviation minister bats for Covid vaccine passports
The IATA Travel Pass promises to make international air travel completely hassle-free. Image courtesy: Youtube/IATA

Former Civil Aviation Minister Suresh Prabhu has called on the government to allow fully-vaccinated people to travel freely to restore normalcy in aviation and tourism, which have been two of the sectors worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. With the second Covid wave in India showing ample signs of ebbing, the government, Prabhu feels, should be able to open up these key sectors and the economy on the whole in a calibrated manner. 

"Allowing only fully vaccinated people to travel should not pose any risk of spreading the pandemic further," Prabhu wrote in a letter to the incumbent Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri on June 3. "The aviation and consequently travel and tourism industries are adversely impacted due to current restrictions, resulting in huge job losses and crippling of small businesses in this important segment," he added.  

Significantly, Prabhu prodded the government to consider issuing vaccine passports as has been done by some of the other countries of the world. 

China, from where the coronavirus had originated, had become the first country to introduce a Covid vaccine passport for its citizens, The Times of India reported in March. The passport is available in digital and paper formats and provides information on a traveller's vaccination status, recent Covid test results and recent antibody test results. It builds on the idea of the International Air Transport Association's (IATA) Travel Pass, which is largely seen as one of the keys to reopening borders safely.

It is a mobile app/digital health pass that helps air passengers conveniently and securely manage their travel in line with government requirements for Covid-19 testing and vaccination. In other words, it helps flyers to ensure that pre-travel tests and vaccination records fulfil the requirements of their destinations.

Also read: Why IATA travel pass is key to resuming regular international air travel

Under this system, passengers can store their negative Covid-19 test result digitally, using a QR code. The airline staff can scan the QR code upon check-in, which speeds up the verification process and makes it hassle-free.

The QR code also ensures that the tests are genuine and done at a verified laboratory, given that the test provider generates that code and sends it to the passenger. This would replace the current system wherein passengers are required to carry physical copies of their test results, which have to be certified manually at the airport. The digital verification also promises to make immigration and other entry checks quicker as only a single scan is needed.  

The IATA Travel Pass was successfully tested on its first international flight onboard a Singapore Airlines plane to the London-Heathrow airport. The IATA had proposed to launch the travel pass app on the Apple platform in mid-April, Reuters reported. The IATA was reported by PTI to be in consultation with the Indian civil aviation authorities and carriers as well for using the pass in India. 

Other vaccine passports include IBM's New York State’s Excelsior Pass, which uses blockchain to communicate with state vaccination records or with health providers; Airbus's Tripset digital passports; AirAsia's Scan2Fly, developed for select routes, including Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Singapore; the New York-based CommonPass, which has partnered with the World Economic Forum (WEF) to launch trials with carriers like Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic; and other country and airline-specific passes. According to the IATA website, 36 global airlines are trialling the IATA Travel Pass and this includes names like Etihad, Emirates, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, British Airways, Saudia, Virgin Atlantic, Qantas, Avianca, Iberia, Japan Airlines, Turkish Airlines and others.  

The IATA Travel Pass and similar digital vaccine passports bring together all the necessary Covid-related information under one roof and help in reducing hassles not just for the passengers, but also for the airlines, immigration staff and governments. It has become an increasingly credible way of verifying a traveller's Covid status when Covid-19 tests and vaccinations are bound to become integral parts of air travel in the foreseeable future, though the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has argued against vaccination as a prerequisite for international travel.

India has been wary of vaccine passports. The country has so far been able to fully vaccinate only about 5% of its population, and fears that insisting on vaccine passports would be discriminatory, according to an NDTV report. India made its disapproval known at the G7 meeting of health ministers on June 4, saying that the rate of vaccination in developing countries is far lower than that in developed countries, and there are unaddressed issues related to equitable and affordable access, and supply and distribution of safe and effective vaccines. 

Also read: UN aviation body argues for Covid jabs, priority status; when will India wake up?

India, which had become the world's worst Covid hotspot, reporting more than three lakh and then, more than four lakh daily new cases of Covid in April-May, has faced the brunt of travel bans by several countries. Most of those restrictions are still in force. India itself has kept scheduled commercial international passenger flights suspended since March 23 last year. 

With the Covid numbers reducing considerably, India would do well to align with a globally recognised digital vaccine passport regime, to convince governments around the world to accept flyers from India again soon. With a robust digital passport system going, India would also be able to resume regular international flights itself without the fear of inviting another Covid wave, so to speak.  

Already the US and UK have been talking about vaccine passports for letting their citizens travel abroad or for accepting flyers from other countries. The European Union (EU) has reportedly been thinking on the same lines. Italy, Iceland, Greece and Spain are opening their borders to people who have been vaccinated or who have recently tested negative for Covid.

According to a report in The Print, though, India is indeed in talks with the Portugal-based multinational technology firm Vision-Box to develop mobile health passports. No formal decision has been reached yet, but if this 'passport' becomes a reality, it may well be linked to the DigiYatra platform, which was launched in 2018 to promote paperless air travel using facial recognition and other technologies. 

A part of the resumption of regular air travel could be the full vaccination of not only the passengers but also airline staff. While global giants like Emirates, Etihad and Singapore Airlines have pushed ahead for the full vaccination of their aircrew, India is lagging behind. The Indian government has not yet granted priority sector status to the aviation employees despite strident demands from the employees themselves and even requests by the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA). Airlines in India have now gone ahead with vaccinating their staff themselves. 

India's vaccination drive, which started with a lot of fanfare back in January, has hit rough weather with demand for vaccines far outstripping supply, with allegations being hurled thick and fast that the government did not order enough vaccines and was left high and dry when vaccination was opened especially for the 18-44 year age group. Worryingly, those who had been administered two full doses of Covaxin may still be considered to be non-vaccinated and ineligible for international travel because the Bharat Biotech-manufactured vaccine is not on the World Health Organisation's (WHO) Emergency Use Listing (EUL), The Times of India reported. Countries are largely recognising vaccines approved by their own regulatory agencies or those on the EUL.    

According to provisional figures of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) for June 5, a total of 18,49,22,910 people have had their first vaccine doses, while 4,61,66,331 have got their second doses. Removing roughly a quarter of India's total population of 1.3 billion who are not yet eligible for Covid vaccination, it can be said that about 19% of the population has got the first dose. About 5% of the population has got both doses.   

Prabhu said, "Our vaccination drive is progressing, and as per the declared strategy, we should see a substantial step up in the number of fully vaccinated people in the next few months." Puri had said in a press conference in Delhi on December 29, 2020, that the government planned to vaccinate nearly 30 crore Indians from January to July 2021. India is not far from that target if both first and second doses are considered, having administered more than 23 crore doses already. 

The Covid situation in India continued on a sustained downward slope on June 5. With 1.2 lakh daily new cases, India saw the lowest daily case count in 58 days. The daily caseload has been less than two lakh now for the past nine days. Active cases decreased by 80,745 in the past 24 hours and the recovery rate stood at 93.38%. There have been more daily recoveries than new daily cases for 23 consecutive days now.  

Prabhu pointed out that India is witnessing "a rapid decline in infections" and that the economy has to be opened and currently affected services restored in a phased manner till total normalcy is possible.