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UK govt draws a blank over vaccine certification app – no really, the report is half-empty

Maybe it's that infamous brain fog

The UK government has underscored its attention to detail on the issue of COVID-19 vaccine passports by publishing a report, half of which is made up of pages with no information.

Much to the derision of expert commentators on social media, the COVID-Status Certification Review details the government's approach to so-called vaccine passports and its response to concerns over their usage.

The 16-page report includes two title pages, a back page, four blank pages and a contents page. Its findings, which make up less than seven pages, conclude with a statement that the government will not mandate the use of COVID-status certification as a condition of entry for visitors to any setting at the present time.

"Any decision to require COVID-status certification will be a discretionary choice for individual organisations to make. However, it is possible that certification could provide a means of keeping events going and businesses open if the country is facing a difficult situation in autumn or winter," it said.

The report said the government would make the NHS COVID Pass, accessed via the NHS App, available so that individuals can prove their status.

However, that would not be the only means to demonstrate vaccine status. A browser version and paper letter – which can be requested through the NHS.UK website or by ringing 119 – could also be used, it suggested.

"This flexibility is an important part of the inclusiveness of the NHS COVID Pass, and events to date show individuals using the range of options, not just the NHS App," the report [PDF] said.

In May, people in England were allowed to use the NHS App to confer their vaccination status, despite warnings from campaigners that it could lead to identifiable medical information being exposed. The NHS App began its rollout in January 2019, well before the pandemic, and is connected to GP practice systems. It is designed to help users book appointments, order repeat prescriptions, and view medical records.

The consultation on the wider use of vaccine passports began in March while in April reports suggested the app-based certificate would go ahead, but not for schools, restaurants, pubs, non-essential retail, gyms, and nail salons. It was expected to be mandatory for large events, such as sports and concerts.

Although the step back might be welcomed by campaigners, concerns remain over the voluntary use of the NHS App for vaccine certification.

In April, 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 a campaign by Big Brother Watch which said: "We oppose the divisive and discriminatory use of COVID status certification to deny individuals access to general services, businesses or jobs."

The Big Brother Watch report [PDF] argued that widespread use of the app-based vaccine certificates could lead to privacy intrusion which would "change not only long-held expectations of medical confidentiality but the way that society operates as a whole."

The campaign group's report said using the NHS App for COVID certificates would be a concern as it is linked to individuals' identities and information in NHS records including a wealth of identifiable, sensitive information such as NHS numbers.

"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," it said.

The Cabinet Office report on COVID-status certification said it had "considered a wide range of evidence as part of the review" and "recognises the concerns expressed over certification" but does not mention privacy. Perhaps those concerns are expected to fill in the blanks. ®

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