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Vaccine passports present data privacy risk, MPs warned

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The imposition of vaccine passports, which would allow people immunised from Covid-19 to greater freedoms, risk compromising data privacy, Information commissioner Elizabeth Denham has warned.

Speaking to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport sub-committee on Online Harms and Disinformation, she said such a system would face substantial questions over its necessity and concerns over the sharing of health data.

She also suggested it could lead to the creation of a “two-tier system” that would allow some people to move more freely than others.

A YouGov poll in November found that up to a third of people are considering not taking the vaccine if offered, which could compromise the ability of the UK to reach “herd immunity” from the disease. While the percentage of people who need to be immune in order to achieve herd immunity is not known for Covid-19, diseases such as measles or polio need 95 and 80 per cent of a population to be vaccinated respectively.

Vaccine passports have been proposed as a way to increase freedom of movement while minimising risks from the disease prior to reaching herd immunity.

“We would approach a detailed proposal around a vaccination passport or a freedom passport in the way that we do any initiative,” Denham told MPs. “That is, is it necessary? Does it work – does it do what it says on the tin? Is it proportionate? And is there transparency? We’re talking about personal health information, which is a special category of data that requires controls.”

She added that the same issues should be raised as they were for the NHS Covid-19 app which also had data privacy implications. The vaccine passport could be added as a feature of that app, but trust in the system is vital, she said.

“People have to trust the government when they bring in these initiatives to understand what’s the purpose, to narrow it as much as possible, and make sure at the end of the day, that their civil liberties, human rights and data protection are respected,” she added.

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