A Daily Mail report said the U.K. Border Force is working to enable electronic passport gates to automatically verify travel documents. It added that the plan will now permit automatic gates to check if someone has been vaccinated against the Wuhan coronavirus before they are allowed entry. Border Force hopes to have the system in place by mid-summer – but members of parliament (MPs) and travel industry figures want the changes sooner. They warned that travelers could spend up to 10 hours lining up for manual document checks if the plan is delayed.
Another report by The Times said documents such as passenger locator forms and negative COVID-19 test results can be digitally linked to travel passports. Once a traveler passes through the e-gate, the passport is automatically scanned and its details logged into the system. The appropriate quarantine rules can then be enforced on the newly-arrived traveler.
Electronic gates for passports have been closed since February of this year after the British government implemented more stringent verification measures. However, the lockdown exit roadmap drafted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the earliest date that non-essential international travel can resume is on May 17. Given this date, reopening the electronic passport gates in airports will help avoid the anticipated long lines.
Government ministers have expressed confidence that electronic gates could be reopened by August. However, there are calls from MPs and the travel industry to move the reopening before the May 17 date pegged by Johnson.
Oxford West and Abingdon MP Layla Moran said that ministers need to take "urgent action" to ensure airports do not become the country's "Achilles's heel." She suggested implementing measures to reduce overcrowding, improve social distancing and isolate passengers coming from high-risk countries. (Related: CBS declares vaccine passports as must-haves for 2021 summer travelers.)
Travel consultancy firm The PC Agency CEO Paul Charles emphasized the need to reopen e-gates at the soonest. He told the Times: "We're forecasting [that] 100,000 [travelers] per day will enter the U.K. initially for May 17, so e-gates will have to reopen to cope with their demand." Charles warned that keeping the e-gates closed will lead to lines "much longer than six hours" – up to "10 hours" even.
British ministers have nevertheless embraced vaccine passports as part of the new normal – whether for traveling to other places or simply visiting nearby establishments. Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs Dominic Raab insinuated in February that U.K. residents may have to present a coronavirus vaccine passport before they can enter a pub or restaurant.
Speaking to radio station LBC, the state secretary remarked that vaccine passports "[haven't] been ruled out" and are just one of many proposals "under consideration" by Downing Street. However, these passports have to be first made "workable." Raab also touched on whether an electronic form of the vaccine passport would come to fruition. "When we're in that different world, … then all kinds of apps and … possibilities [for vaccine passports] will be open to us."
However, vaccine passports also come with significant privacy risks. During a parliament session, British lawmakers questioned Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham about the general public's use of these passports. She replied that such an endeavor would face scrutiny over its necessity and its sharing of health data.
"We're talking about personal health information, which is a special category of data that requires controls," Denham told parliament members. However, she continued that she is of the opinion that some of the issues surrounding vaccine passports "are beyond data protection."
The information commissioner for the U.K. warned that such 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 get the vaccines under this system. Denham remarked: "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." (Related: Florida governor bans vaccine passports, as they create TWO CLASSES of citizens.)