The United Kingdom National Health Service (NHS) will soon roll out a feature on its smartphone application that shows the user’s vaccination status. Users can present this to authorities when traveling overseas.
The feature, which will be available beginning Monday, May 17, will only be available for people in England. It will also only be useful if the destination country recognizes the NHS application as valid proof the user has been vaccinated completely. Complete immunization means the user received both doses of the vaccine.
UK government to use NHS app as “passport”
The application was initially designed to allow users to message their physicians, request repeat prescriptions, book appointments and access their medical records. It is different from the NHS COVID-19, a contact tracing application for monitoring the spread of the pandemic in England and Wales.
On Wednesday, April 28, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps confirmed in an interview that they were working on an NHS application, the same one used for booking appointments, that would show that users have been vaccinated. Shapps added that he was working with partners worldwide to make sure that the new system will be recognized internationally “as that’s the way forward.”
Shapps noted that certification could take on a variety of formats. However, he emphasized that they always look to digital solutions first. As it stands, the NHS application will only be available to people with smartphones. People without access to smartphones are advised to coordinate with their general practitioners.
Vaccines Minister and Member of Parliament (MP) for Stratford-on-Avon Nadim Zahawi told BBC Breakfast that they were working on preparing the NHS application to act as a passport. This could involve it having access to both a user’s vaccination status and his or her most recent COVID-19 test results.
However, the Department of Health and Social Care stated that the application was only “being considered as part of the digital route.”
Challenges of using vaccine passports
The announcement of the new feature comes as the U.K. government prepares to lift domestic and international travel restrictions, including lockdowns.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce that the government will push on with the next stage of lifting lockdowns in England. The announcement could come as soon as Monday.
But while convenient, the application faces several hurdles. For one, the application doesn’t record users’ vaccination status automatically. British journalist Rory Cellan-Jones said he searched in vain to find the record of his COVID-19 vaccination only to get a message telling him he needed to ask his physician for access to his detailed health records.
If the NHS application does become a vaccine passport, there will be millions of people bombarding their physicians with similar requests.
The U.K. government has also made it clear that it wants a broader process of COVID-19 certification. Ideally, this process includes recent COVID-19 test results so that young people who haven’t been vaccinated can also travel. But integrating tests into the application promises to be a complex procedure, added Cellan-Jones.
There is also the question of where or not border police around the world will recognize and trust the passport. Cellan-Jones said one insider even told him that simply flashing an existing application with your vaccine record at passport control to be allowed to travel “isn’t going to happen.”
And even if the technology can be updated quickly and efficiently, getting the new feature ready by Monday in time to lift travel restrictions looks like a major bureaucratic challenge. (Related: Canada wants to require VACCINE PASSPORTS for Americans crossing the border.)
Read more articles with updates on the coronavirus pandemic at Pandemic.news.