The Morrison government has awarded a contract for new digital passenger declarations to international IT company Accenture, a major step towards the establishment of a vaccine passport for international travel.
The declarations will take the place of incoming passenger cards and Covid-19 travel declarations, and they will capture information such as vaccination status to make international travel to Australia more convenient.
The Guardian reported last week that 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.
On Monday the tourism minister, Dan Tehan, confirmed the system will allow Australians to use MyGov to upload proof of vaccination to a QR code linked to their passport.
“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 digital passenger declaration, which can be completed on a mobile device or a computer, will track incoming passengers’ vaccination status up to 72 hours before boarding and record it. Tehan confirmed that contact tracers may be given access to the information contained in the declaration.
According to Karen Andrews, Australia’s home affairs minister, the declaration “will support the safe reopening of our 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.
Stuart Robert, the minister of government services, stated that the same technology could be used to deliver “visas, import permits, personnel identity cards, licences, registrations, and other documents.”
The national cabinet has set up a working group to examine whether fully vaccinated people should be exempt from public health orders, but it has not yet agreed to differentiated rules that would require people to demonstrate their vaccination status.
For major events, vaccine passports may be required in New South Wales and Victoria, but the Australian Capital Territory has said it is not likely to require them.
However, Scott Morrison has indicated that private businesses may be able to ask customers to show proof of vaccination even without vaccine passports being mandated by state or territory governments. Morrison revealed in the beginning of August that legal advice indicated that such a move would be “unlikely” to violate discrimination laws.
There have been more caution from the Australian Human Rights Commission in warning businesses that they “should be cautious about the imposition of an all-or-nothing vaccination rule.”.
Michael Tull, the Community and Public Sector Union’s assistant national secretary, criticised Accenture’s selection for the passenger declaration contract on Monday.
“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.
Australia’s four-phase reopening strategy, unveiled by Morrison in July, calls for 80 percent of the country’s over-16 population to be fully immunised before vaccinated Australians are allowed to travel freely overseas again.
Under the “Phase C” of the plan, vaccination caps would be abolished and all restrictions on outbound travel for vaccinated Australians would be lifted.
The triggers are determined by vaccination rates rather than a specific date, although NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian has indicated that international travel will most likely resume in time for Christmas in her state.
Tehan stated that the government was working with the International Civil Aviation Organization to create a QR code for vaccine certificates so that they would be recognised globally.
Similarly, he said QR codes would be integrated with state check-in apps so that Australians could show proof of vaccination status when attending sporting and theatrical events.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the premiers of each state, and the chief ministers of each territory all received an update on quarantine arrangements from former health chief Jane Halton earlier in September.
There was also a “need for risk-based approaches to quarantine and the South Australian home quarantine trial,” according to Morrison’s statement following the meeting last week.
It has been a few weeks since the federal government launched an aggressive campaign urging all states and territories to move forwards with Phase II of its opening-up plan as soon as they reach 70 percent and 80 percent vaccination rates against Covid-19, respectively.
Although the plan has been criticised by many, state and territory officials and observers alike, the reality is more complex. The plan had always been “subject to change if required,” as agreed by the national cabinet in July.
By Joe Cusmano