The NHS app's update aligns with the British government's lifting of the ban on foreign travel. According to the NHS Digital website, "people in England who have had a full course of the COVID-19 vaccine can demonstrate their COVID-19 vaccination status for international travel" starting May 17. The site also mentioned that letters certifying vaccination status are available by calling the 119 hotline – the U.K.'s version of 911.
"As of today, the NHS app shows your COVID-19 vaccine record," British Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps wrote in a tweet, noting that the update only applies to the app with access to private medical records.
The NHS app is available to British citizens aged 13 and up who have registered with a general practitioner in England.
The newly added "vaccine record" service in the NHS app update allows registered users to prove that they received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. According to a U.K. government source, the update was designed to help people comply with other countries' requirements for travelers. But, they clarified that there has been "no decision" on whether a vaccine passport scheme will be put in place domestically.
Vaccine passports have been eyed as a way to drop masks and other restrictive health measures. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson has disagreed with the idea of requiring people to show proof of vaccination before entering pubs and restaurants.
Minister for the Cabinet Office Michael Gove meanwhile helmed a review of vaccine passports for mass events. He and his team looked at the possibility of vaccine passports for sports stadiums, business conferences, theaters and other locations where vaccinated adults can mix freely indoors. (Related: UK citizens may have to present a vaccine passport before entering pubs and restaurants.)
Privacy advocates and members of parliament (MPs) have expressed fear that these vaccine passports could be used to discriminate against people and infringe on their human rights.
ProPrivacy digital privacy expert Attila Tomaschek is among those who voiced out possible concerns regarding the NHS app's use as a vaccine passport. Speaking to Computer Weekly, he warned that the plan posed major risks to people's privacy and civil liberties.
"Beyond the obvious privacy concerns surrounding the development of massive stores of personal health data, NHS [and] passport numbers and individuals' travel history, there is also a major concern that the data collected … may be used beyond the scope and timeline of the pandemic by the government or even other third-party agencies," Tomaschek said, warning that the data may be used inappropriately to generate "personal risk scores" for U.K. residents – similar to China's social credit score.
He also raised the alarm bells on the use of citizen's data "for other outbreaks, other public health purpose or other completely unrelated purposes" down the road.
"These scenarios are certainly not out of the realm of possibility. Either way, a vaccine passport scheme certainly opens the door for data misuse that is both extended and ongoing," he commented.
Tomaschek is not the only one with negative sentiments toward vaccine passports. In January of this year, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham told MPs that a vaccine passport scheme would face scrutiny over its necessity and health data sharing. But the commissioner continued that she believes some issues surrounding the vaccine passports "are beyond data protection." (Related: Vaccine passports pose data privacy risks: UK Information Commissioner.)
Denham also warned that vaccine passports would give rise to a "two-tier" system. People who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 may have more liberties than those who cannot or do not get the vaccines under this system. "They touch on human rights, … on whether or not we're going to create a two-tier society based on whether you have a [COVID-19 vaccine] in the arm," the information commissioner said.
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