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UK Government warned over human rights implications of vaccine passports

UK Government warned over human rights implications of vaccine passports
By Jess Hacker
15 April 2021

Using health and immunisation data in a vaccine passport system ‘raises numerous human rights questions’, the Council of Europe (COE) has warned European governments.

In a letter (14 April) sent to all members including the UK, the COE said that while the use of such certificates for medical and non-medical purposes is not new, it should be considered with ‘the utmost caution’.

It said: ‘The possible use of vaccination certificates, as well as immunisation data, for purposes other than strictly medical, for example to give individuals exclusive access to rights, services or public places, raises numerous human rights questions.’

The COE added that such restrictions could restrict several rights of those who are unable to or cannot justify immunisation, including the right to freedom of movement, the right to respect for private and family life, and the right to freedom of religion.

These risks are ‘all the more real’ as most vaccination campaigns – including the UK’s – do not yet allow for everyone to access vaccines, it said.

This comes as a report on the Government’s review into Covid status certification said that the NHS is currently working on ‘providing individuals with the means to demonstrate their Covid status through a digital and non-digital route’.

Processing health data

The COE also warned that vaccine passes would contain sensitive health data, and that ‘the processing, including the collection, of such data and information must be subject to a particularly high level of protection’.

It added that their ‘use for non-medical purposes raises concerns about the protection of privacy and personal data’.

In particular, processing data of people who are not subject to ‘the rules of confidentiality’, could risk undermining respect for data protection principles.

As a result, all processing of health data should meet the criteria of lawfulness, purpose, security and other criteria outlined in the COE’s Automatic Processing of Personal Data document, it said.

Passports could create ‘two-tier’ system, UK watchdog says

A separate statement, issued today (15 April) by the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, said that the Cabinet Office must ‘strike the right balance’ between individual liberty and the rights of others.

It said that ‘parliamentary oversight of a time-limited scheme’ would help make sure a passport system remains a ‘proportionate’ way of keeping spaces Covid-secure.

It also called for detailed guidance to be published for employers to minimise the risk of discrimination.

The Guardian exclusively reported that the EHRC also told the Cabinet they risk creating a ‘two-tier society’, and that employers should not be allowed to hire workers on a ‘no jab, no job’ basis.

NHS’ role in certifying vaccines

The NHS solution mentioned in last week’s Government report is expected to help facilitate non-essential international travel where certification of vaccination is required.

It said: ‘The vaccination programme could offer a more stable route out of the need for such restrictions – provided we see sufficient efficacy against any variants of concern – which means the role of Covid-status certification is crucial to this work.’

A Covid-status scheme could ‘potentially play a role in settings such as theatres, nightclubs, and mass events’, the report added, but not in services such as public transport and essential shops.

The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has previously warned that any Covid certification scheme must not impact on GP workload, and has called for general practice to be consulted during ‘all stages of the development’. The RCGP has also highlighted that such a scheme would need to consider how lower uptake in some ethnic minority communities and lower income groups might impact people’s access to services or venues.

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