Vaccine passport first big test as border with Singapore opens

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The opening of the border with Singapore will be Australia’s first test of its vaccination passport system.

Key points

  • International tourists are tipped to be arriving before Christmas with Singaporean leisure travellers are likely to be among the first in line.
  • Australia is the first country in the world to issue proof of vaccination using visible digital seal (VDS) technology.
  • Australia is also set to become one of the first countries that will not require incoming international passengers to do a PCR test on arrival.

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from AFR 24.10.21

Singapore | Quarantine-free travel between Singapore and Australia is looming as the first big test for Australia’s new international vaccination passports.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday Australia was in the final stages of completing an arrangement with the Singapore government, which already operates vaccinated travel lanes (VTLs) with 11 countries.

Qantas is bringing forward the start date for services to Singapore to the end of November. 

Qantas is bringing forward the start date for services to Singapore to the end of November and to Fiji in early December, confirming these two nations are at the front of the queue for quarantine-free travel.

While the emphasis remains on bringing back Australians from overseas, international tourists are tipped to be arriving before Christmas and Singaporean leisure travellers are likely to be among the first in line.

Australia’s staggered approach to opening up comes as Asian nations including Thailand and Malaysia join the United States and Europe in welcoming back international tourists – as long as they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

However, there is still no standard international approach to verifying vaccination outside of Europe.

Australia is the first country in the world to issue a proof of vaccination using visible digital seal (VDS) technology specified by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

The Australian Passport Office has developed an app that border control officials will use to authenticate these certificates. However, no foreigner entering Australia will be using the VDS system.

Also, Australian passport holders who have been vaccinated outside the country cannot access the new certificates until they can get their vaccination records uploaded by a medical professional here.

To date, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore recognises vaccination certificates issued in 11 countries for VTL travellers. By mid-November, South Korea will be added to that list.

In recent days, the Australian and Singapore governments have been testing systems to ensure Singapore authorities will also recognise the VDS certificates.

The Morrison government described the VDS technology as “world-leading”. However, experts in the field note there are alternatives.

The European Union’s Digital COVID Certificate – also known as the Green Certificate – is used across Europe to not just clear customs and borders but also gain entry to public places such as restaurants. Almost 600 million of these certificates are in use.

System compatibility

Developing countries, meanwhile, have been working for months with vaccine certificate specifications issued by the World Health Organisation, which has a long history in vaccination proof and certification.

ICAO, the EU and WHO are working towards making the various systems compatible. Right now, though, this is not the case and Australia is out on its own. The government has indicated it will assist other countries interested in the VDS technology, which it says conforms with WHO guidance.

It’s not clear which standard will end up being the most widely adopted, says Ted Dunstone, founder of the Biometrics Institute, a global, not-for-profit organisation advocating for the responsible use of biometrics and identity. He said the VDS system could end up being left behind.

“The WHO certification is bound to have teething problems, but the concern is that the VDS is less suited to interoperability with other worldwide schemes that are gaining traction, such as the EU digital COVID certificate, and hence could turn out to be a technological dead end,” Dr Dunstone said.

Australia is also set to become one of the first countries that will not require incoming international passengers to do a PCR test on arrival. The onus will be on airlines to verify passengers’ pre-departure test result and vaccination documentation.

Singapore Airlines has designated some flights to Australia as “For Eligible Passengers Only”. All travellers on these flights must be either an Australian citizen or permanent resident, or a foreign national holding a valid visa and travel restriction exemption. The Australian government’s VDS certificate is among the vaccination certificates that will be accepted.

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