April 06, 2021 at 07:36PM

Immunity passports are showing up in media reports at a never before seen rates in recent weeks, but the concept is far from new — nor was it invented for the age of COVID-19. People who want to travel to certain African nations, for example, must first prove at customs they’ve already been inoculated against yellow fever before being allowed to enter.

But before 2021, immunity passports were generally the concern of the extremely well traveled heading out to far-flung locals; the COVID-19 pandemic has created a heretofore unknown demand for a global passport usable by anyone going anywhere — and a heaping pile of controversy along with it.

Supporters of passports claim they represent an excellent way to leverage mobile technology to provide an easily accessible tool that will help consumers feel more confident to get back to traveling, dining out, shopping in stores and going to events again. A vaccine passport is already in use in Israel, under development in the U.K. and the European Union and in New York state which has partnered with a private company to get one built.

But that has also generated blowback among those concerned that mandatory COVID-19 passports place an undue burden on consumers in terms of privacy — and that people should not be forced to surrender personal information to participate in normal human experiences. Florida’s governor has already announced a prohibition on the use of COVID-19 passports in the state, while Republican state Senators in Pennsylvania are in the process of writing legislation that would prohibit vaccine passports in any form from being used to bar people from routine activities.

“We have constitutional rights and health privacy laws for a reason,” said Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, a Republican. “They should not cease to exist in a time of crisis.”

And yet proponents, like U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, are pushing for such programs as the best and fastest way to restore consumer confidence while controlling the virus well enough that lockdowns can finally come to an end.

Apart from the various bits of political push and pull over vaccine passports, there is also the simple fact that actually constructing them presents some extreme logistical challenges, as in that previously covered in this space. Those challenges can theoretically be overcome in nations with centralized national health systems, such as in Europe and Great Britain. But building something similar in the U.S., where patient data is fragmented in tens of thousands of healthcare businesses, strains the limits of what can be easily and securely built.

How necessary are the passports? It depends on how one looks at the data. According to PYMNTS most recent exclusive survey data, consumers are feeling more confident where their safety is concerned. The share of consumers reporting being very or extremely concerned about the pandemic has dropped to 57.5 percent, the lowest level since PYMNTS started polling consumers on the subject a little over a year ago. That growing confidence is encouraging.

But consumers are also in this for the long haul, as the majority of respondents still don’t anticipate normal return for almost a year, in February 2022. That is shorter than they once projected — a month ago the majority of consumers were still forecasting the end of April of next year — but it’s still a fair distance from today’s date.

Longer, one might imagine, than event planners, travel industry players and movie theater operators would like to have to wait for consumers to get back into the swing of physical things. And vaccine passports might actually demonstrate progress in getting people to feel safe enough in the world to interact more regularly with it once again.

We imagine we’ll hear a lot more about them, and how and when we should begin to use them in the U.S. in the not too distant future.


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