Confusion over use of NHS App as Covid passport

Transport secretary Grant Shapps appeared to confirm in a recent interview that England’s NHS app would be used as a vaccine passport.

Travel restrictions are due to ease on 17 May, after which foreign travel can resume.

However a government source told the BBC the app would not be ready “imminently”.

It is connected to GP services in England and linked to personal health data.

People can use the NHS app to request repeat prescriptions, message their doctor and organise online consultations. It is completely separate from the NHS Covid-19 app, which is used for contact-tracing.

The NHS app is already able to display vaccine statuses, including Covid-19 jabs – but this must be enabled by GPs, and while some seem to do this by default, other surgeries ask patients to request it.

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi told BBC Breakfast that work was under way on preparing it to act as a passport – this could involve it having access to not only vaccine status, but also to most recent test results.

“NHSx [the NHS’s digital division]…are working on making that operationally possible for the 17th of May,” he said.

But in a statement, the Department of Health and Social Care said only that the app was “being considered as part of the digital route”.

It might seem that the NHS app, used by a million or so people since 2019 to book GP appointments or order prescriptions, has fortuitously given the government an instant solution to creating a vaccine passport.

Not so fast – there are a number of hurdles to be cleared.

While the app can record your vaccinations, that isn’t automatic – I’ve searched in vain to find the record of my Covid jab, only to get a message saying I need to ask my GP for access to my detailed health record. If the NHS app does become a vaccine passport, millions of people will be bombarding GPs with similar requests.

But the government has made it clear it wants a broader process of Covid certification, including recent test results, otherwise young people who hadn’t been vaccinated wouldn’t be able to travel. Integrating tests into the app promises to be complex.

Finally, there’s the process of transforming the NHS app into something that will be easy to use and trusted by border police around the world.

“If people think they’ll just be able to flash the existing app with their vaccine record at passport control, that isn’t going to happen,” one insider told me.

Getting everything ready by 17 May looks like a major bureaucratic challenge, even if the technology can be updated quickly and efficiently.

Presentational grey line
A number of countries and organisations have proposed their own vaccine passport arrangements:

European officials have announced plans for an EU-wide “Green Digital Certificate”. This would allow anyone vaccinated against Covid, or who has tested negative, or recently recovered from the virus, to travel within the region.
New York has launched a digital-wallet style Covid-19 passport called the Excelsior Pass. The White House however has ruled out a compulsory federal passport.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has launched its own app, the IATA Travel Pass which it trialled with Singapore Airlines
UK-based independent healthcare app My GP launched a simple vaccine certification feature last week, in the form of a green tick for users 12 days after their second dose of the vaccine.
In the UK, government minister Michael Gove provided a written statement to parliament today, following a trip to Israel to learn about the country’s Green Pass system.

He emphasised that there were no plans to make vaccine certification compulsory in certain domestic settings, including essential public services and shops, and on public transport, but did not focus on international travel

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