Scott Kirby, the chief executive of United Airlines, reached a breaking point while vacationing in Croatia this summer: After receiving word that a 57-year-old United pilot had died after contracting the coronavirus, he felt it was time to require all employees to get vaccinated.
He paced for about half an hour and then called two of his top executives. “We concluded enough is enough,” Mr. Kirby said in an interview on Thursday. “People are dying, and we can do something to stop that with United Airlines.”
The company announced its vaccine mandate days later, kicking off a two-month process that ended last Monday. Mr. Kirby’s team had guessed that no more than 70 percent of the airline’s workers were already vaccinated, and the requirement helped convince most of the rest: Nearly all of United’s 67,000 U.S. employees have been vaccinated, in one of the largest and most successful corporate efforts of the kind during the pandemic.
The key to United’s success, even in states where vaccination rates are at or below the national average, like Texas and Florida, was a gradual effort that started with providing incentives and getting buy-in from employee groups, especially unions, which represent a majority of its workers.
praise from President Biden, who weeks later announced that regulators would require all businesses with 100 or more workers to require vaccinations or conduct weekly virus testing. And the company drew scorn from conservatives.
Other mandates are producing results, too. Tyson Foods, which announced its vaccine requirement just days before United but has provided workers more time to comply, said on Thursday that 91 percent of its 120,000 U.S. employees had been vaccinated. Similar policies for health care workers by California and hospitals have also been effective.
charge its unvaccinated employees an additional $200 per month for health insurance.
A Year in the Making
United had been laying the groundwork for a vaccine mandate for at least a year. The airline already had experience requiring vaccines. It has mandated a yellow fever vaccination for flight crews based at Dulles International Airport, near Washington, because of a route to Ghana, whose government requires it.
In January, at a virtual meeting, Mr. Kirby told employees that he favored a coronavirus vaccine mandate.
Writing letters to families of the employees who had died from the virus was “the worst thing that I believe I will ever do in my career,” he said at the time, according to a transcript. But while requiring vaccination was “the right thing to do,” United would not be able to act alone, he said.
The union representing flight attendants pushed the company to focus first on access and incentives. It argued that many flight attendants couldn’t get vaccinated because they were not yet eligible in certain states.
Mr. Kirby acknowledged that widespread access would be a precondition. The airline and unions worked together to set up clinics for staff in cities where it has hubs like Houston, Chicago and Newark.
was calling on all employers to do so. A mandate would strike workers as unfair and create unnecessary conflict, the flight attendants’ union argued.
“The more people you get to take action on their own, the more you can focus on reaching the remaining people before any knock-down, drag-out scenario,” said Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants, which represents more than 23,000 active workers at United.
In May, the pilots reached an agreement that would give them extra pay for getting vaccinated and the flight attendants worked toward an agreement that would give them extra vacation days. Both incentives declined in value over time and typically expired by early July.
vaccinated by Oct. 25 or within five weeks of a vaccine’s formal approval by the Food and Drug Administration, whichever came first. The timing was intended to ensure that the airline had adequate staffing for holiday travel, said Kate Gebo, who heads human resources.
This time, the unions were more resigned.
“For those 92 percent of pilots who wanted to be vaccinated, we captured $45 million in cash incentives,” said Captain Insler, whose union is challenging the decision to fire employees who don’t comply. “For those who did not want to be vaccinated, we were able to hold off a mandate for several months.”
Getting Over the Finish Line
The success of the incentives — about 80 percent of United’s flight attendants were also vaccinated by the time the airline announced its mandate in August — inspired the company to expand them to all employees, offering a full day’s pay to anyone who provided proof of vaccination by Sept. 20.
The company hadn’t surveyed its workers, but estimated that 60 to 70 percent were already vaccinated. Getting the rest there wouldn’t be easy.
The State of Vaccine Mandates in the U.S.
Vaccine rules.On Aug. 23, the F.D.A. granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for mandates in both the public and private sectors. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
Schools. California became the first state to issue a vaccine mandate for all educators and has announced plans to add the Covid-19 vaccine as a requirement to attend school as early as next fall. Los Angeles already has a vaccine mandate for public school students 12 and older who are attending class in person starting Nov. 21. New York City has introduced a vaccine mandate for teachers and staff, but it has yet to take effect because of legal challenges. On Sept. 27, a federal appeals panel reversed a decision that temporarily paused that mandate.
Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get vaccinated. Mandates for health care workers in California and New York State appear to have compelled thousands of holdouts to receive shots.
New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations. City education staff and hospital workers must also get a vaccine.
At the federal level. On Sept. 9,President Biden announced a vaccine mandate for the vast majority of federal workers. This mandate will apply to employees of the executive branch, including the White House and all federal agencies and members of the armed services.
In the private sector. Mr. Biden has mandated that all companies with more than 100 workers require vaccination or weekly testing, helping propel new corporate vaccination policies. Some companies, like United Airlines and Tyson Foods, had mandates in place before Mr. Biden’s announcement.
Margaret Applegate, 57, a 29-year United employee who works as a services representative in the United Club at San Francisco International Airport, helps illustrate why.
Ms. Applegate normally does not hesitate to get vaccines, noting that her late father was a doctor and that her daughter does research in nutritional science.
Her daughter urged her to get vaccinated, but she remained deeply ambivalent. Friends and co-workers “were feeding me stories about horrible things happening to people with the vaccine,” she said. She worried about the relatively new technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and whether her heart condition could pose complications, though her cardiologist assured her it wouldn’t.
six employees sued United, arguing that its plans to put exempt employees on temporary leave — unpaid in many circumstances — are discriminatory. United has delayed that plan for at least a few weeks as it fights the suit.
Still, United’s vaccination rate has continued to improve. There was another rush before the deadline to receive the pay incentive and one more before the final Sept. 27 deadline. Toward the end of September, the company said 593 people had failed to comply. By Friday, the number had dropped below 240.
“I did not appreciate the intensity of support for a vaccine mandate that existed, because you hear that loud anti-vax voice a lot more than you hear the people that want it,” Mr. Kirby said. “But there are more of them. And they’re just as intense.”
When New York City announced on Tuesday that it would soon require people to show proof of at least one coronavirus vaccine shot to enter businesses, Mayor Bill de Blasio said the system was “simple — just show it and you’re in.”
Less simple was the privacy debate that the city reignited.
Vaccine passports, which show proof of vaccination, often in electronic form such as an app, are the bedrock of Mr. de Blasio’s plan. For months, these records — also known as health passes or digital health certificates — have been under discussion around the world as a tool to allow vaccinated people, who are less at risk from the virus, to gather safely. New York will be the first U.S. city to include these passes in a vaccine mandate, potentially setting off similar actions elsewhere.
But the mainstreaming of these credentials could also usher in an era of increased digital surveillance, privacy researchers said. That’s because vaccine passes may enable location tracking, even as there are few rules about how people’s digital vaccine data should be stored and how it can be shared. While existing privacy laws limit the sharing of information among medical providers, there is no such rule for when people upload their own data onto an app.
sends a person’s location, city name and an identifying code number to a server as soon as the user grants the software access to personal data.
passed a law limiting such use only to “serious” criminal investigations.
“One of the things that we don’t want is that we normalize surveillance in an emergency and we can’t get rid of it,” said Jon Callas, the director of technology projects at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group.
While such incidents are not occurring in the United States, researchers said, they already see potential for overreach. Several pointed to New York City, where proof of vaccination requirements will start on Aug. 16 and be enforced starting on Sept. 13.
For proof, people can use their paper vaccination cards, the NYC Covid Safe app or another app, the Excelsior Pass. The Excelsior Pass was developed by IBM under an estimated $17 million contract with New York State.
To obtain the pass, people upload their personal information. Under the standard version of the pass, businesses and third parties see only whether the pass is valid, along with the person’s name and date of birth.
On Wednesday, the state announced the “Excelsior Pass Plus,” which displays not only whether an individual is vaccinated, but includes more information about when and where they got their shot. Businesses scanning the Pass Plus “may be able to save or store the information contained,” according to New York State.
Phase 2,” which could involve expanding the app’s use and adding more information like personal details and other health records that could be checked by businesses upon entry.
IBM has said that it uses blockchain technology and encryption to protect user data, but did not say how. The company and New York State did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. de Blasio told WNYC in April that he understands the privacy concerns around the Excelsior Pass, but thinks it will still “play an important role.”
For now, some states and cities are proceeding cautiously. More than a dozen states, including Arizona, Florida and Texas, have in recent months announced some type of ban on vaccine passports. The mayors of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle have also said they were holding off on passport programs.
Some business groups and companies that have adopted vaccine passes said the privacy concerns were valid but addressable.
Airlines for America, an industry trade group, said it supported vaccine passes and was pushing the federal government to establish privacy standards. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, which is helping its members work with Clear, said using the tools to ensure only vaccinated people entered stores was preferable to having businesses shut down again as virus cases climb.
“People’s privacy is valuable,” said Rodney Fong, the chamber’s president, but “when we’re talking about saving lives, the privacy piece becomes a little less important.”
Stephen Colbert’s late-night talk show will return to filming in front of a studio audience on June 14, CBS said on Monday.
About 400 audience members will be allowed in the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway in Manhattan, provided they can show proof of vaccination against the coronavirus, such as through the Excelsior Pass issued by New York State or an original physical vaccination card from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There will be no capacity restrictions, and masks will be optional.
CBS said that staff and crew members will be tested for the virus before starting work and will be screened daily for symptoms, monitored by a Covid-19 compliance officer. The network said the plan comports with New York State guidelines.
The show’s changes will come just a few months before Broadway shows are expected to return, and about a month after baseball stadiums in New York began designating separate seating sections for people who have been vaccinated and those who have not.
relaxed the state’s capacity restrictions, allowing businesses to serve as many patrons as they like as long as there is enough space for people to adequately socially distance. He also ended the mask mandate for vaccinated people indoors and outdoors, though individual businesses are allowed to have stricter mask policies.
The pandemic put a stop to many late-night talk shows for a time in mid-March 2020, when New York and Los Angeles, where many of them are produced, introduced strict social distancing and quarantine guidelines.
Since then, the shows have had to get creative, interviewing guests by video conference and filming in empty studios or from the hosts’ homes, with family members sometimes serving on the crew.
When Mr. Colbert began doing his show from home, the first episode had him delivering the monologue from his bathtub. At the time, Mr. Colbert and the network changed the name from “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” to “A Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” to reflect the show’s straitened circumstances. The name will return to normal once the audience returns.
impromptu reaction to the Jan. 6 Capitol assault.
During a recent interview on “Fresh Air,” Mr. Colbert said that working without an audience created challenges that only a crowd could ameliorate.
“I’m much more likely to mess up and have to retake something, lose the rhythm of a joke, or even just misread the prompter without an audience there, because there’s some vital performance adrenaline spark that’s missing that the audience provides,” Mr. Colbert said. “And so my wife and my kids have seen me absolutely shank monologues over and over again. And it’s very humbling for them to realize that I’m not that good at this.”
Norwegian Cruise Line is threatening to keep its ships out of Florida ports after the state enacted legislation that prohibits businesses from requiring proof of vaccination against Covid-19 in exchange for services.
The company, which plans to have its first cruises available to the Caribbean and Europe this summer and fall, will offer trips with limited capacity and require all guests and crew members to be vaccinated on bookings through at least the end of October.
During a quarterly earnings call on Thursday, Frank Del Rio, chief executive of Norwegian Cruise Line, said the issue had been discussed with Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, a Republican. Mr. Del Rio said if the cruise line had to skip Florida ports, it could operate out of other states or the Caribbean.
“We certainly hope it doesn’t come to that,” Mr. Del Rio said. “Everyone wants to operate out of Florida. It’s a very lucrative market.”
such as Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association games, state health and safety guidelines require that fans provide proof of vaccination or of a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours of attendance.
“We hope that this hasn’t become a legal football or a political football,” Mr. Del Rio said on the call.
Norwegian Cruise Line is headquartered in Florida along with Royal Caribbean Cruises and Carnival Corporation. In 2019, about 60 percent of all U.S. cruise embarkations were from Florida ports, according to an economic analysis prepared last year for the Cruise Lines International Association.
In a business update on Thursday, Norwegian Cruise Line said it was experiencing “robust future demand” with bookings for the first half of 2022 that were “meaningfully ahead” of 2019 bookings. Through the end of the first quarter of 2021, the company said it had $1.3 billion of advance ticket sales.
a statement on Monday when he signed the bill. “In Florida, your personal choice regarding vaccinations will be protected and no business or government entity will be able to deny you services based on your decision.”
His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday, and Norwegian Cruise Line could not be reached for comment.
“We hope that everyone is pushing in the same direction, which is we want to resume cruising in a safe manner, especially at the beginning,” Mr. Del Rio said on the earnings call. “Things might be different six months from now or a year from now.”
The latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allows for cruise ships to conduct “simulated voyages” with volunteer passengers to see how cruise lines can safely resume operations with measures such as testing and potential quarantines.
The C.D.C. requires cruise lines to complete the test runs before they can be cleared to sail with passengers this summer.
“It is not possible for cruising to be a zero-risk activity for spread of Covid-19,” the C.D.C. said this week. “While cruising will always pose some risk of Covid-19 transmission, C.D.C. is committed to ensuring that cruise ship passenger operations are conducted in a way that protects crew members, passengers and port personnel.”
Tampa, Miami and Key West.
Mr. Del Rio said “pent-up demand” had helped fill bookings quickly.
“I believe it’s the No. 1 destination for Americans to the Caribbean,” Mr. Del Rio said. “Who knows? That vessel might prove to be so profitable there that it never returns back to U.S. waters.”
Governments, tourism boards, airlines, hotel companies, travel agencies and cruise operators, along with tour bus drivers, housekeepers, local guides, pilots, restaurateurs, museum operators, bed-and-breakfast hosts, entertainers, caterers, fishermen, shopkeepers and bar owners — in short, all the people standing to profit from tourism dollars — are facing extreme economic pressure not to lose out on another tourism season. The past year without travel, when international arrivals dropped from 1.5 billion to 381 million, was devastating. For many, another similar year would be unthinkable.
And so an already stressed system has been forced to confront an existential quandary: Do countries opt for continuing international lockdowns, or do they increase the risk of disease and court much-needed tourism revenue? New Zealand, which, through a combination of stringent lockdowns, border closures and strict quarantines, has all but eliminated the coronavirus from its shores, has staked its claim at one end of the spectrum. Greece appears to be claiming the other.
There are no easy answers, no universal solutions. In many cases, the onus will fall on individual tourists — the fortunate and vaccinated few, plied with incentives and feverish for travel — to thoughtfully navigate the ethical considerations.
Of all the variables, only one thing seems inevitable: The choices we make, whether to venture out or huddle close to home, are unlikely to bode well for the individual workers — the unfortunate and unvaccinated many — who, by dint of circumstance, are vulnerable to both the virus and the teetering fortunes of a hard-hit industry.
“I do think we’ve learned important lessons over the course of the year about how to engage more safely in public spaces,” said Dr. Fortune, who emphasized that it’s important for vaccinated travelers to continue testing, wearing masks and practicing social distancing.
“I think the real danger,” she added, “is that the most vulnerable people are the ones who have the least ability to mitigate risk.”
Isn’t the European Union also developing a system? Yes. On June 21, the E.U. is expected to introduce a certificate called a Digital Green Pass, with the aim of allowing people who have been vaccinated against the coronavirus to travel more freely. Under the proposed rules, each nation within the bloc could decide which travel restrictions, such as obligatory quarantine, to waive for Digital Green holders. But many countries, including Denmark, say they cannot afford to wait for the Digital Green Pass and are developing their own versions.
Name of card: The Green Pass
Could it get you an indoor table? Yes.
How about entry to a concert or sports game? That, too.
Anything else? The pass allows you to enter many businesses, including swimming pools, gyms, theaters and wedding halls, as well as cultural events, such as concerts, sports games and religious gatherings. Having the pass may also mean that you may not have to quarantine for 10 to 14 days after international travel.
How does it work? In late February, Israel’s ministry of health began offering the Green Pass to fully vaccinated residents and individuals who have recovered from Covid-19. When booking a table at a restaurant, many of the businesses began to ask, “Do you have a Green Pass?” Israelis can print their certificates containing a QR code, download the code onto their phones or flash the app itself.
What’s with that family? The app and other Green Pass materials feature an animated illustration of a family of three. The man is wearing shorts, a backpack and a camera around his neck, suggesting he’s on vacation. His son and wife are wearing masks, but their postures are relaxed as they pull their suitcases.
Aparna Nair, a professor of science history at the University of Oklahoma who maintains a collection of vaccination certificates going back to the 1820s, said that this detail was noteworthy: “They are using the design of the vaccine passport to form visual connections with life after the pandemic, essentially, the vaccine as a literal passport to the rest of the world.”
Once you’ve figured out the logistics to get in and get out, you will have more homework to do. Don’t expect your favorite airport restaurants or lounges to be operating normally. Before leaving home, check your airport website to see what’s open near your terminal; if your options are lacking, pack a meal. Likewise, when you arrive at your destination, make sure to check the websites for the restaurants and tourist sites that you hope to visit for their hours. The travel industry is far from returning to normal.
Keep up on vaccine passports
To make traveling smoother, airlines may require travelers to present a vaccine passport, digital documentation proving that they have been vaccinated. Airlines have been testing mobile health apps including CommonPass, ICC AOKpass, VeriFLY and the International Air Transport Association’s travel pass app to ensure travelers can present their health data in a secure, verifiable way.
Most of the apps will, in theory, work like this: If you get vaccinated at a medical facility, the app connects with the database of that facility to retrieve your information. The app then loads a QR code, which is a digital bar code, verifying that the vaccine was administered. You could then show that bar code at the airport check-in counter, the boarding gate or immigration control.
Too much is still up in the air with vaccine passports for widespread use, Mr. Harteveldt said. Airlines, government agencies and cruise lines are still testing the apps to determine which products are the most reliable and easy to use. Things could get chaotic if different parties require people to download different passport apps, and many experiments may fail. Vaccine passports have also set off a fierce political debate over the legality of requiring digital credentials for a vaccine that is ostensibly voluntary. (The Biden administration has said it would not push for mandatory vaccination credentials or a federal vaccine database.)
So the best we can do with vaccine passports right now is nothing. Don’t upload your data to any of the apps just yet — but when it comes time to travel, do check your airline’s website for updates on vaccine passports and follow the instructions.
Prepare your phone
The rest of your travel tech prep will largely be the same as it was in pre-Covid times. Pack a spare battery pack, charging cables and a safety pin to eject your SIM card. Then do the following:
■ Unlock your phone. Your phone must be unlocked to work with foreign SIM cards. Many newer smartphones come unlocked by default, but you should call your carrier to confirm that your device will work with other wireless carriers.
■ Buy a foreign SIM card. If you’re traveling abroad, you can avoid paying expensive international roaming fees to your carrier by temporarily using a foreign phone plan. When you arrive at your destination, you can usually buy a SIM card at the airport or a cellphone store and insert that into your phone; you can also order a SIM card online and have it delivered to your home before you travel. (Some newer smartphones work with eSIMs, which are essentially a digital SIM card to add a separate phone plan. I’ve had mixed experiences, including eSIMs that failed to activate when I reached my destination, so I prefer physical SIMs.)
With Covid-19 vaccinations accelerating, attention is turning to tools for people to prove that they have been inoculated and potentially bypass the suffocating restrictions used to fight the pandemic.
Though the idea is meeting some resistance over privacy and equity concerns, several types of coronavirus vaccination records, sometimes called “vaccine passports,” already exist, in paper and digital form. Hundreds of airlines, governments and other organizations are experimenting with new, electronic versions, and the number grows daily, although so far their use has been very limited.
Portable vaccine records are an old idea: Travelers to many parts of the world, children enrolling in school and some health care workers have long had to supply them as proof that they have been vaccinated against diseases.
But vaccine passports use digital tools that take the concept to new levels of sophistication, and experts predict that electronic verification will soon become commonplace, particularly for international air travel, but also for admission to crowded spaces like theaters.
“yellow card,” used for decades by travelers to show inoculation against diseases like yellow fever. But those are on paper, filled out by hand and fairly vulnerable to forgery.
The tool might have to address several variables: It is unclear how long inoculation lasts, there can be bad batches and the emergence of new variants of the virus are likely to require new vaccines. So in the long run, an electronic record might need to show which specific vaccine a person received, from which batch and when.
More than a dozen competing versions are already being developed and promoted.
using CommonPass, developed by the Commons Project, a Swiss-based nonprofit, with support from the World Economic Forum. Lufthansa passengers flying into the United States can also use it.
The same month, Singapore Airlines became the first carrier to make limited use of Travel Pass for people flying between Singapore and London, and will put it into wide use in May.
Also in March, New York State became the first government in the United States to implement a system, the Excelsior Pass, developed with IBM, which some venues have used to prove vaccination. The governors of Florida and Texas have vowed to block any such system in their states, calling it government overreach and an invasion of privacy.
Vaccine Credential Initiative, to develop a broadly agreed-upon set of open standards, meaning that the software underlying a verification system is transparent and it can adapt easily to other systems, while safeguarding privacy. The W.H.O. has a similar initiative, the Smart Vaccination Certificate.
But several companies are creating closed, proprietary systems that they hope to sell to clients, and some apparently would have access to users’ information.
One concern is that a profusion of systems might not be compatible, defeating the purpose of making it easy to check someone’s status.
Another objection is that any requirement to prove vaccination status would discriminate against those who can’t get the shot or refuse to, and there is lingering uncertainty about how well inoculation prevents virus transmission.
For those reasons, the W.H.O. said this week that it does not support requiring proof of vaccination for travel — for now.
LONDON — For Aruba, a Caribbean idyll that has languished since the pandemic drove away its tourists, the concept of a “vaccine passport” is not just intriguing. It is a “lifeline,” said the prime minister, Evelyn Wever-Croes.
Aruba is already experimenting with a digital certificate that allows visitors from the United States who tested negative for the coronavirus to breeze through the airport and hit the beach without delay. Soon, it may be able to fast-track those who arrive with digital confirmation that they have been vaccinated.
“People don’t want to stand in line, especially with social distancing,” Ms. Wever-Croes said in an interview this week. “We need to be ready in order to make it hassle-free and seamless for the travelers.”
Vaccine passports are increasingly viewed as the key to unlocking the world after a year of pandemic-induced lockdowns — a few bytes of personal health data, encoded on a chip, that could put an end to suffocating restrictions and restore the freewheeling travel that is a hallmark of the age of globalization. From Britain to Israel, these passports are taking shape or already in use.
But they are also stirring complicated political and ethical debates about discrimination, inequality, privacy and fraud. And at a practical level, making them work seamlessly around the globe will be a formidable technical challenge.
The debate may play out differently in tourism- or trade-dependent outposts like Aruba and Singapore, which view passports primarily as a tool to reopen borders, than it will in vast economies like the United States or China, which have starkly divergent views on civil liberties and privacy.
The Biden administration said this week that it would not push for a mandatory vaccination credential or a federal vaccine database, attesting to the sensitive political and legal issues involved. In the European Union and Britain, which have taken tentative steps toward vaccine passports, leaders are running into thorny questions over their legality and technical feasibility.
And in Japan, which has lagged the United States and Britain in vaccinating its population, the debate has scarcely begun. There are grave misgivings there about whether passports would discriminate against people who cannot get a shot for medical reasons or choose not to be vaccinated.
Japan, like other Asian countries, has curbed the virus mainly through strict border controls.
“Whether or not to get vaccinated is up to the individual,” said Japan’s health minister, Norihisa Tamura. “The government should respond so that people won’t be disadvantaged by their decision.”
Still, almost everywhere, the pressure to restart international travel is forcing the debate. With tens of millions of people vaccinated, and governments desperate to reopen their economies, businesses and individuals are pushing to regain more freedom of movement. Verifying whether someone is inoculated is the simplest way to do that.
“There’s a very important distinction between international travel and domestic uses,” said Paul Meyer, the founder of the Commons Project, a nonprofit trust that is developing CommonPass, a scannable code that contains Covid testing and vaccination data for travelers. Aruba was the first government to sign up for it.
“There doesn’t seem to be any pushback on showing certification if I want to travel to Greece or Cyprus,” he said, pointing out that schools require students to be vaccinated against measles and many countries demand proof of yellow fever vaccinations. “From a public health perspective, it’s not fair to say, ‘You have no right to check whether I’m going to infect you.’”
CommonPass is one of multiple efforts by technology companies and others to develop reliable, efficient systems to verify the medical status of passengers — a challenge that will deepen as more people resume traveling.
At Heathrow Airport in London, which is operating at a fraction of its normal capacity, arriving passengers have had to line up for hours while immigration officials check whether they have proof of a negative test result and have purchased a mandatory kit to test themselves twice more after they enter the country.
Saudi Arabia announced this week that pilgrims visiting the mosques in Mecca and Medina during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan would have to show proof on a mobile app of being “immunized,” which officials defined as having been fully vaccinated, having gotten a single dose of a vaccine at least 14 days before arrival, or having recovered from Covid.
In neighboring United Arab Emirates, residents can show their vaccination status on a certificate through a government-developed app. So far, the certificate is not yet widely required for anything beyond entering the capital, Abu Dhabi, from abroad.
Few countries have gone farther in experimenting with vaccine passports than Israel. It is issuing a “Green Pass” that allows people who are fully vaccinated to go to bars, restaurants, concerts and sporting events. Israel has vaccinated more than half its population and the vast majority of its older people, which makes such a system useful but raises a different set of questions.
With people under 16 not yet eligible for the vaccine, the system could create a generational divide, depriving young people of access to many of the pleasures of their elders. So far, enforcement of the Green Pass has been patchy, and in any event, Israel has kept its borders closed.
So has China, which remains one of the most sealed-off countries in the world. In early March, the Chinese government announced it would begin issuing an “international travel health certificate,” which would record a user’s vaccination status, as well as the results of antibody tests. But it did not say whether the certificate would spare the user from China’s draconian quarantines.
Nor is it clear how eager other countries would be to recognize China’s certificate, given that Chinese companies have been slow in disclosing data from clinical trials of their homegrown vaccines.
Singapore has also maintained strict quarantines, even as it searches for way to restart foreign travel. Last week, it said it would begin rolling out a digital health passport, allowing passengers to use a mobile app to share their coronavirus test results before flying into the island nation.
Free movement across borders is the goal of the European Union’s “Digital Green Certificate.” The European Commission last month set out a plan for verifying vaccination status, which would allow a person to travel freely within the bloc. It left it up to its 27 member states to decide how to collect the health data.
That could avoid the pitfalls of the European Union’s vaccine rollout, which was heavily managed by Brussels and has been far slower than that in the United States or Britain. Yet analysts noted that in data collection, there is a trade-off between decentralized and centralized systems: the former tends to be better at protecting privacy but less efficient; the latter, more intrusive but potentially more effective.
“Given the very unequal access to vaccines we are witnessing in continental Europe, there is also an issue of equal opportunity and potential discrimination,” said Andrea Renda, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels.
For some countries, the legal and ethical implications have been a major stumbling block to domestic use of a passport. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada put it last month, “There are questions of fairness and justice.”
And yet in Britain, which has a deeply rooted aversion to national ID cards, the government is moving gingerly in that direction. Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week outlined broad guidelines for a Covid certificate, which would record vaccination status, test results, and whether the holder had recovered from Covid, which confers a degree of natural immunity for an unknown duration.
Mr. Johnson insisted that shops, pubs and restaurants would not be required to demand the certificate, though they could opt to do so on their own. That did not stop dozens of lawmakers, from his Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party, from opposing the plan on grounds that were legal, ethical and plainly commercial — that it could keep people out of the country’s beloved pubs.
Government officials now suggest that the plan is targeted less at pubs and restaurants and more at higher-risk settings, like nightclubs and sporting events.
“Would we rather have a system where no one can go to a sports ground or theater?” said Jonathan Sumption, a former justice on Britain’s Supreme Court, who has been an outspoken critic of the government’s strict lockdowns. “It’s better to have a vaccine passport than a blanket rule which excludes these pleasures from everybody.”
Reporting was contributed by Stephen Castle in London, Motoko Rich in Tokyo, Shashank Bengali in Singapore, Vivian Wang in Hong Kong, Vivian Yee in Cairo, Asmaa al-Omar in Beirut, and Ian Austen in Ottawa.