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Australia takes major step towards vaccine passports for international travel

The Morrison government has taken a major step towards establishing a vaccine passport for international travel, awarding a contract to international IT company Accenture for new digital passenger declarations.

The declarations will replace incoming passenger cards and Covid-19 travel declarations, capturing information including vaccination status to facilitate international travel at scale into Australia.

Last week the government suggested it will have a system in place within weeks to enable recognition of vaccination status for international travel as vaccination rates rise.

A person checks into a restaurant in Normandy, France using a QR code with an EU Covid digital vaccine certificate.

“Where you’re required to prove you’re vaccinated – when you’re travelling overseas to get entry into countries – that QR code will be able to demonstrate you are vaccinated,” Tehan told Radio National.

The separate digital passenger declaration will record incoming passengers’ vaccination status up to 72 hours prior to boarding and be completed by mobile device or computer. Tehan confirmed information on the declaration could be shared with contact tracers.

On Monday the home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, said the declaration “will support the safe reopening of Australia’s international borders, by providing digitally verified Covid-19 vaccination details.”

​​“This will help us to welcome home increasing numbers of Australians, and welcome the tourists, travellers, international students, skilled workers, and overseas friends and family we’ve all been missing during the pandemic,” she said.

The government services minister, Stuart Robert, said the same technology could later be rolled out to deliver “visas, import permits, personnel identity cards, licenses, registrations, and other documents”.

The national cabinet has established a working group to consider potential exemptions to public health orders for fully vaccinated people, but is yet to agree to differentiated rules that would require people to demonstrate their vaccination status.

While the New South Wales and Victorian governments have indicated vaccine passports will probably be required for pubs, clubs and major events, the Australian Capital Territory has indicated it will probably not require them.

On Thursday the ACT chief minister Andrew Barr raised technical difficulties, noting that while the NSW, Victoria and South Australian check-in apps verify their users’ identity and could eventually be used as vaccine passports, the ACT and other jurisdictions’ apps did not and could at best download a vaccine certificate.

Even if vaccine passports are not mandated by state or territory governments, Scott Morrison has indicated that individual businesses may be able to ask customers to prove they have been vaccinated. In early August, Morrison revealed that legal advice suggested to do so was “unlikely” to be in breach of discrimination laws.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has been more circumspect, warning businesses they “should be cautious about imposing a blanket rule requiring vaccination as a condition of entry”.

On Monday the Community and Public Sector Union assistant national secretary, Michael Tull, was critical of the decision to award the passenger declaration contract to Accenture.

“This new platform is critical digital infrastructure that should be built in-house by the public service, so it is publicly owned and controlled by parliament,” Tull said in a statement.

“Public assets like visa gateways should never be handed over to multinational corporations, and certainly never in a circumstance where major questions about what is being built, how much it will cost are yet to be answered.”

On Wednesday Tehan said that “when we hit that 70% or 80% vaccination mark Australians will be able to travel overseas again and also Australians will be able to return home in greater numbers.”

“We’ll also be able to start welcoming international students, those who want to come here to work, ultimately tourists again,” he said.

The four-phase plan for reopening Australia unveiled by Morrison at the end of July suggests vaccinated Australians would be able to head overseas again more freely when at least 80% of the over-16 population had been fully vaccinated.

Under “Phase C” of the plan, governments would abolish caps on vaccinated Australians returning from overseas, and lift all restrictions on outbound travel for vaccinated Australians.

The triggers are linked to vaccination rates rather than a fixed date, although the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has been signalling international travel will probably resume in the state in time for Christmas.

Tehan said the government was working to develop a QR code with the International Civil Aviation Organisation so the vaccine certificates would be internationally recognised.

Similarly, QR codes would be integrated with state check-in apps to allow Australians to demonstrate their vaccination status to attend events including sport and theatre, he said.

National cabinet – which includes Morrison, the premiers and the chief ministers – received an update earlier in September from former health chief Jane Halton on a review of quarantine arrangements.

That included the “need for risk based approaches to quarantine and South Australian home quarantine trial”, according to Morrison’s statement after the meeting last week.

“Both pieces of work will assist national cabinet’s consideration of modifications to Australia’s quarantine systems at Phase B and C of the national plan.”

Over the past few weeks, the federal government has been campaigning hard for all states and territories to proceed to the next stages of the opening up plan when the next two thresholds are met: 70% and 80% of over-16s fully vaccinated against Covid-19.

But many observers and state and territory leaders have pointed out the plan is more nuanced than how some federal government figures have presented it. The plan, agreed by national cabinet in July, was always “subject to change if required”.