While a vaccine passport would have avoided the cancellation of Bluesfest, our government has a track record of mishandling similar digital initiatives.
The coming UK vaccine passport scheme digitally records whether people had been vaccinated, had recently tested negative or who have already had COVID-19. The UK Government says the scheme is necessary in order to safely hold gatherings and events while Covid remains active. After extensive lockdowns in Britain, businesses including pubs, non-essential retail and restaurants, are finally opening in the coming weeks.
With the cancellation of the Byron Bay Blues Festival fresh in the memory, it may only be a matter of time before our government considers implementing similar requirements here. But could they pull it off?
The lack of free movement has been a serious adverse impact of the pandemic. Because of this, proponents say vaccine passports offer a way for people to get their social lives back, as quickly as possible.
Opponents, however, say it is an unwarranted, unjustified and potentially ineffective way of combating Covid – and that the end does not justify the means. They are concerned that the acceptance of such a significant degree of social control will act as an effective way to condition the public to accept the withering away of basic democratic freedoms and legal safeguards – fearing that once these are removed they will be difficult to get back.
Some point to the expensive, failed Australian Government Covid tracing app as evidence that such schemes simply do not work in practice.
A digital panacea?
Governments assert that Covid passports offer somewhat of a digital panacea for the post-pandemic recession.
A case in point is the annual Byron Bay Blues Festival, which was cancelled late last week only 24 hours before it was due to start because NSW Health Authorities deemed there was a high risk of community transmission if the festival went ahead. The decision was made after two infected Queenslanders travelled to Byron, and one local man had tested positive for the virus in the lead-up.
Fifteen thousand people were expected at the event, some had already set up campsites at the ground, and hundreds of small businesses – accommodation providers, food vendors and other suppliers were upended at the last minute. Artists and event staff also lost work.
There was widespread anger in Byron itself, because those people and businesses affected have no avenues for compensation.
JobKeeper is officially finished. Many insurance policies don’t cover the pandemic. So some are entertaining the possibility that a Covid passport could have allowed the show to go on.
Privacy and social justice concerns
In addition to concerns about social control, questions are also being asked about the security of the systems being used to run these certification schemes; especially given the Australian Government’s appalling track record on privacy, as evidenced by the Australian Census and My Health Record data breaches.
There are concerns around the collection of, and access to, personal data, and how this may be used for ‘unintended purposes’ by the government, other organisations or even hackers.
While the Covid passport is currently an ‘opt-in’ initiative in both the UK and New York, there are concerns it may become compulsory over time, particularly as international borders open up and people plan to travel overseas. Or if not formally compulsory, practically mandatory for anyone who wants to attend events or travel.
Another concern revolves around social justice, as the very nature of the passports is to encourage vaccination. In the USA, it’s well documented that African-American and Latina people are getting immunised for Covid-19 at much lower rates. It’s entirely possible that the same situation will develop with Australia’s Indigenous population which, particularly in regional and remote areas, does not have equitable access to healthcare services. Other groups could also be disadvantaged by a digital passport requirement such as the poor, the less technically literate, the aged – the list goes on.
Track record of protecting data and delivering results
As already stated, the Australian Government has an appalling track record of implementing national digital initiatives.
And then there is, of course, the highly touted CovidSafe App, launched by the Prime Minister around this time last year.
Although there have been more than seven million downloads of the CovidSafe app, it only identified a total of 17 cases of Covid, and 81 close contacts of those 17 cases.
By the end of January this year, the Government had spent more than $6 million on developing, promoting and maintaining the app. The infrastructure continues to cost around $100,000 a month and taxpayers will bear the financial burden of this flop.
So many are concerned about whether a Covid passport scheme, the implementation of which will certainly cost taxpayers several million dollars, is the right way forward in a country where – fortunately – Covid is nowhere near as prevalent as in the US and UK.