Talking Point : Digital health passports
A complete guide to the use of digital health passports for global corporate travel
Talking Point : Digital health passports
Digital passports : An introduction
Discussing digital health passports : An introduction
For many months now digital health passports have been offered up as a solution that will allow countries to better control the spread of Covid-19 while also opening up their borders and allowing non-essential travel to resume.
With testing proven to be the safest and most effective way to gather information on the spread of Covid-19 case rate, developing a system that verifies the results of an individual’s PCR or lateral flow tests quickly became a priority for governments and technology developers alike.
In an ideal world, digital health passports would provide a way of securely sharing Covid-19 test results, vaccination certifications and immunity status in order to deem a person as being at low risk of catching or spreading the virus.
However, this idealised view must currently contend with challenges such as accessing accurate information on test requirements, travel restrictions and testing centres, infrastructure that allows airlines and government authorities to implement digital health passports, verifying the accuracy and authenticity of test results and public opinion towards vaccination and digital health apps.
Despite these challenges, development of digital health passports and supporting technology continues at pace. In fact, if you were to search for 'digital health passports' right now, you would probably find news of yet another tech firm releasing their version of a health passport.
Add to this that an increasing number of airlines and airports are trialling the technology (at the time of writing Singapore Airlines, British Airways, Qatar and Tokyo airport have conducted trials, with Virgin Atlantic about to launch trials of two apps), it’s time to take a balanced look at digital health passports, the technology behind them and how travel managers can prepare for their use.
In this short guide we will cover:
- The most frequently asked questions about digital health passports
- Concerns around the safety and efficacy of digital health passports
- Details of the IATA Travel Pass
- How travel managers can be prepared for the increasing use of digital health passports
7 questions everyone is asking about digital health passports
A digital health passport FAQ
Since the idea of a digital health passport was first mentioned as a possible pathway to restart international air travel, we’ve seen quick development and frequent discussion of the technology. However, if you’re not an expert in software development, blockchain technology and API building then it can be hard to get a grasp on exactly how digital passports work and, most importantly, whether you should be downloading one before your next flight.
We’ve broken down the jargon and distilled the essential information about digital health passports and their use into this short selection of FAQs:
1. What is a digital health passport?
A digital health passport is digital documentation that confirms a traveller has been vaccinated against a virus and/or has taken necessary tests to prove that they are not carrying a virus. This information will usually be stored in an app or as part of an online certification and can then be used to assess whether the traveller is at a low risk of acquiring or transmitting the virus.
Digital health passports have most commonly been discussed within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, with conversation focused on whether this technology can be used to help limit the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
2. Why were digital health passports created?
Although the idea of producing vaccination certifications in order to travel is not a new concept (an International Certificate of Vaccination against yellow fever has been an entry requirement for many countries in Africa and the Americas for some years), digital health passports are a new technology that has been created in response to the global outbreak of Covid-19.
Airlines in particular have expressed their desire for a standardised form of ‘proof of testing/vaccination’ as a way of facilitating a return to air travel. Digital health passports are seen by many as a way of reducing the risk of catching and spreading Covid-19 while travelling when used in conjunction with PCR testing and global vaccination roll outs.
3. How does a health passport work?
In their most basic form, a digital health passport shares information regarding a traveller’s vaccination and test status with a chosen travel provider via a QR code or online certificate. If the information that is shared meets the destination country’s entry requirements or an airline’s travel criteria then a traveller is deemed safe to fly.
There is an expectation that the functionality of digital health passports will increase as development and roll-out continues. This could include increased integration with airline-specific apps, the ability to include children or minors and group bookings.
Would you use a digital health passport when travelling?
- Not at all
- Still unsure
4. Do I need a health passport to travel?
Although digital health passports are welcomed by many airlines and are of interest to governments, it is still early days when it comes to the implementation of the technology. With that in mind, there are currently no hard rules about the use of digital health passports and most regulations and legislation still focuses on testing.
For further clarification on the travel requirements for your home and destination countries, check official government websites.
5. Will health passports be made mandatory?
As the introduction of digital health passports is still relatively new, it seems unlikely that the use of the technology will be made mandatory around the world any time soon - if at all.
There are still logistical challenges and circumstances that digital health passports are yet to overcome, such as suspicions around security, a standardisation process and a successful global vaccination programme.
7. Is my data safe when using a digital health passport?
The security of data that is so sensitive and personal is understandably a common concern amongst travellers.
Different apps are choosing to implement different types of data security measures. For example, the ICC AOKPass and IATA TravelPass use blockchain technology as this means that there is no central database that could be hacked to access personal information. VeriFLY, which is being offered by identity assurance technology company Daon, will use biometric authentication.
The best way for travellers to make an informed choice that they are comfortable with is to stay up-to-date with the development and adoption of digital health passports over the coming months.
6. What digital health passports already exist?
The first digital health passports to emerge included ICC AOKpass, CoronaPass and CommonPass. Other passports include the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Travel Pass, Mvine-iProov passport, VeriFLY, V-Health Passport, Passport for COVID and CCI Linux.
Key challenges surrounding the widespread adoption of digital health passports
The key challenges surrounding the widespread adoption of digital health passports
Despite the enthusiasm for digital health passports, and the quick return to travel that they are expected by many to bring, use of the technology has raised some understandable concerns and queries.
Here’s a short outline of the challenges and barriers to widespread adoption that digital health passports must overcome:
Data security is understandably the most common concern raised when the widespread use of digital health passports is discussed. These apps will contain and communicate travellers’ most personal and private data and users will need to feel confident that software developers are doing everything they can in order to protect it.
Different technology providers are taking different approaches. Some developers have implemented the use of blockchain technology, as this means that there is no central database that could be hacked to access personal information. It also means the app providers do not collect personal and medical data. Alternatively, some providers are relying on biometric authentication to provide data security.
From a corporate travel perspective, whenever digital health passports are introduced as part of a corporate travel booking tool or as company travel policy it will be essential for corporates to carry out due diligence on the security of different passport products and clarify whether they, as employers, would face liability in the event of any security breaches.
Despite the fact that there are already numerous health passport apps available for download currently, there is yet to be a set of industry-wide standards established for the creation, implementation and use of digital health passports.
Without standardisation, the space in which digital health passport apps operate can become fragmented and take on a ‘wild west’ quality, ultimately leading to more complexity for travellers and a reduced adoption of the technology itself. However, achieving standardisation of a technology as complex, nuanced and sensitive.
In order for digital health passports to truly serve their purpose, multiple elements of the testing and travel processes must be examined and standardised. For example, a universal directory of the latest travel restrictions and testing laboratories would need to be developed in order to take into account regional approaches. This would also allow airlines to ensure that passengers are compliant with border rules and regulations, without limiting the choice of labs they could go to or the choice of digital health passports they could use.
International Air Transport Association (IATA) have shared that they are working on a standardised solution that will be based on a global registry of requirements and also a global registry of testing labs - more information can be found here.
Political climate and cultural differences
Following on from the challenges of standardisation, the global adoption of digital health passports will also be heavily impacted by local government attitudes and overriding cultural norms.
It is important to see global adoption of digital health passport technology as different from and separate to any kind of enforcement from governments. Although many within the travel sector are keen for as many travellers as possible to embrace the technology, as this will help to facilitate a quicker return to travel as we know it, there is an acknowledgement that enforced use of the technology is unlikely.
It would be politically difficult and divisive for governments to endorse a system that only gives the right to travel to certain individuals, particularly when a vaccine has not been offered to all adults yet.
There are also wider concerns surrounding ‘immunoprivilege’ and structural inequalities that would prevent some travellers from accessing the testing, vaccinations or technology needed to travel in a world where the use of digital health passports was enforced.
Much of the discussion around health passports has focused around apps and digital technology - understandably so, as focus has been on developing contactless solutions that can be deployed quickly at a large scale.
However, voices from within the medical, travel and tech communities have shared concerns over the security and validity of a digital health passport when compared with paper certifications that are currently used to prove Yellow Fever vaccination.
They point out that as some countries lack the digital infrastructure to support multiple ‘e-gate’ check points throughout the travel process, a simple solution would be preferable.
Overcoming these challenges is no easy feat, as counter arguments point out that a paper-based system would be challenging to introduce at scale and could fall prey to fraud and forgery.
IATA Travel Pass : Setting a global standard
IATA Travel Pass - Setting a global standard
With consistency and interoperability of digital health passports proving challenging, many travel suppliers looked to IATA to provide a global standard. IATA have now delivered a solution in the form of the IATA Travel Pass.
Created in collaboration with an advisory group of airlines, IATA Travel Pass is a mobile app that aims to support a safe and straight-forward experience for travellers. The app gives travellers access to the local health requirements and testing/vaccination centres for their departure and destination locations, as well as enabling them to securely share testing results and vaccination certificates with airlines and government authorities.
The solution consists of four elements:
1. A global registry of health requirements that enables passengers to find accurate information on travel, testing and vaccine requirements. (This gathers information from 1,700 government health authorities and is updated over 200 times per day.)
2. A global registry of testing/vaccination centres that enables passengers to find testing at their departure location which meets the standards or requirements for their destination.
3. A lab app that enables authorised labs and test centres to communicate certification to travellers securely.
4. A contactless travel app that enables passengers to create a digital passport, verify that their test/vaccine meets regulations and share certifications with relevant authorities.
In order to meet security and privacy concerns, all data is stored on a traveller’s device and remains under the control of the traveller to comply with data protection laws.
In practice the IATA Travel Pass checks a travellers itinerary for testing and vaccination requirements, relevant timings and for nearby authorised labs to provide a set of criteria for the passenger. Once this criteria is met then a passenger is marked as safe to travel.
The IATA Travel Pass is now available for download for Apple users and was recently trialled by Singapore Airlines. Updated releases that feature more advanced capabilities are expected in the coming months.
How travel managers can prepare for digital health passports
How travel managers can prepare for digital health passports
As the world begins to warm up to a new way of travelling, it is corporate travel managers that are expected to stay one step ahead and adapt their travel programmes accordingly.
Amending policies and processes to account for multiple travel restrictions, new health and safety guidelines and testing and quarantine requirements has become an important part of a travel manager’s role, however it can be challenging to know exactly where to start when it comes to the use of new technologies in unprecedented and uncertain situations.
Here are some first steps for travel managers to take as the discussion around digital health passports and corporate travel increases:
Engage task force
It is worth assembling some key stakeholders to discuss what stance your organisation is going to take regarding the use of digital health passports during corporate travel. These should include HR, legal, travel managers and any security officers if applicable.
This could be a fairly short and straightforward discussion that is agreed to be reviewed as the technology is developed and its use becomes more widespread. However, with the topic of digital health passports likely to feature heavily in the news and press over the coming months, then it makes good sense to clarify your organisation’s view ahead of any questions from travellers.
Many organisations are using the reduction in travel volume as a chance to review their internal processes and policies in order to ensure they are fit for purpose once travel resumes.
As part of this review it is worth deciding whether you would like to add any guidance regarding the use of digital health passports to your current corporate travel policy. It’s a difficult area and is one that some organisations are choosing to stay away from until the technology is more developed.
We have already seen how quickly digital health passport apps have been developed around the world and this doesn’t look likely to be slowing down any time soon. With that in mind it’s important for travel managers to stay up-to-date with the latest developments in digital health passports, as it’s likely that travellers will be asking more questions about these in the coming months.
While it’s not necessary to become an expert in software development, being able to point travellers in the direction of relevant resources or provide further information so travellers can make informed decisions is important.
Talk to your TMC
It can be overwhelming when trying to gather accurate information about digital health passports and so the best place to start is by talking to your TMC. TMCs are in regular contact with many industry regulatory bodies, airlines and other travel suppliers and so will be up-to-date with developments regarding digital health passports. They might also be able to advise how best to include digital health passports in your travel policy, if at all.
Assess traveller opinion
Before creating a complex communication plan to address the rise of digital health passports, it’s a good idea to check in with your travellers and see what their opinions are. Some travellers might be willing to adopt whatever technology necessary in order to travel freely, whereas others might be more reticent. Let traveller opinion set the tone of your communication plan.
Will you be advising your corporate travellers to use a digital health passport?