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NHS App gets go-ahead for vaccine passport use despite protest from privacy groups

Big Brother Watch warns app contains too much sensitive medical information

Folks in England can from next week use the NHS App to confer their vaccination status, in the face of warnings that the technology could lead to identifiable medical information being exposed.

The British government has announced that from 17 May, people will be able to demonstrate their COVID-19 vaccination status – a so-called vaccine passport or certificate – using the NHS App, which began its public rollout in January 2019, well before the pandemic. Connected to a GP's practice systems, it is designed to help users book appointments, order repeat prescriptions, and view medical records. This feature is so far available to people registered with a GP in England only.

"You can access the app through mobile devices such as a smartphone or by tablet. Proof of your COVID-19 vaccination status will be shown within the NHS App," the government said this week.

Initially the app will only be able to confirm vaccine status prior to international travel. The government has also been consulting on wider use of the vaccine passports, a call for evidence having closed at the end of March. The announcement on international travel is the first step in the introduction of vaccine certificates.

Reports have suggested the certificates would have no place in steps two and three of the UK's reopening "roadmap", which includes schools, restaurants, non-essential retail, gyms, and nail salons.

However, the government is still "considering a range of evidence around COVID-status certification and whether it may have a role in opening up higher risk settings safely." The review is ongoing and no decisions have been taken over whether to use the certificates to access large events, such as sports and concerts.

However, a study by campaign group Big Brother Watch concluded that COVID certificates using the NHS App would be "intrinsically linked to individuals' identities... as NHS records contain a wealth of identifiable, sensitive information including NHS numbers."

That report [PDF] stated: "Using the NHS App for proof of a vaccine comes with a significant further privacy risk due to the wealth of other personal information available within it, from prescriptions to addresses, and these issues are yet to be addressed."

Last month, 78 MPs and 11 lords – including former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey – backed Big Brother Watch's campaign against the use of COVID certificates.

Campaign group Liberty also supported the position, saying: "We oppose the divisive and discriminatory use of COVID status certification to deny individuals access to general services, businesses or jobs."

In the US, New York launched its Excelsior Pass with IBM with a plan to use the technology for theatres, sports stadiums, and event venues. In California, health authorities suggest venues could verify whether someone has received a vaccine or tested negative for large events.

In the EU, discussions remain ongoing, with some disagreement, although a system is planned to be ready by June. ®

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