Vaccine passports in Australia: who will impose them and how will they work?

As states and territories set out their plans to ease Covid-19 health restrictions, one leader has made clear that it’s now every jurisdiction for itself when it comes to the thorny question of vaccine passports.

© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Canadian Press/Rex/Shutterstock

The chief minister of the Australian Capital Territory, Andrew Barr, said as much on Wednesday, comments that followed his earlier explanation that he opposes the idea that vaccinated people should gain extra freedoms citing human rights and the practicality of enforcement.

Related: Covid-19 vaccine Australia rollout tracker by state: total number of people and per cent vaccinated, daily vaccine doses and rate of progress

By contrast, New South Wales and Victoria have laid out reopening plans that include exemptions from public health orders for the fully vaccinated, but it’s less clear how vaccine passports will be used in states that are currently Covid-free.

Last Friday national cabinet agreed that all states and territories will integrate vaccine certificates in their check-in apps. That creates the architecture that will allow businesses to refuse to serve unvaccinated customers, which Scott Morrison and discrimination law experts have said is likely to be legal.

© Photograph: Canadian Press/Rex/Shutterstock A Covid QR code is scanned in Montreal, Canada, where vaccine passports are being used to allow people to enter certain businesses. Proof of vaccine status is already required for some activities in Australia.

Here’s what we know so far about what vaccine passports will be used for and where the unvaccinated will miss out.

A short history

Australia’s Covid-19 vaccination policy, first published in November, states that vaccination is voluntary but strongly encouraged, with the rider that: “There may however, be circumstances where the Australian government and other governments may introduce border entry or re-entry requirements that are conditional on proof of vaccination.”

In January the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, first proposed that “high-risk settings” such as pubs and clubs could require patrons to show proof of vaccination to gain entry. Other leaders said the idea was premature because the rollout had not yet started.

In July national cabinet agreed to the four-stage reopening plan, including that once 70% adult vaccination rates have been reached states and territories may “ease restrictions on vaccinated residents (TBD)” and at 80% the federal government will “lift all restrictions on outbound travel for vaccinated Australia”.

Since then it has been clear proof of vaccine status will be required for some activities.

The federal government has announced that it is developing a digital passenger declaration for incoming arrivals that will include vaccination status, and a system to allow people to use MyGov to upload proof of vaccination to a QR code linked to their passport.

On 30 July the national cabinet asked a subgroup of Victoria, Tasmania and the Northern Territory to “prepare options on how restrictions can be eased for vaccinated Australians” once 70% vaccination rates are reached.

On 17 September it decided that each jurisdictions will integrate an individual’s immunisation record into its own check-in app which would be used “as per requirements under state and territory public health orders”. No uniform or model health orders have been agreed.

Barr said on Wednesday there had been “a bit of a commonwealth takeover” of the process, and a paper was presented that Victoria, Tasmania and the NT had not authored, but the issue will return to national cabinet for consideration on 1 October.

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New South Wales

© Provided by The Guardian People walk through a park in Sydney marked with social distancing circles where fully vaccinated residents are allowed to have a picnic. Photograph: Loren Elliott/Reuters

NSW has announced that “only fully vaccinated people and those with medical exemptions will have access to the freedoms allowed under the Reopening NSW roadmap”.

Once the 70% adult vaccination target is reached, they can:

  • Have up to five visitors to the home and gather in groups of up to 20 outdoors

  • Attend hospitality, retail, personal services, gym and indoor recreation facilities and sporting facilities, including pools

  • Attend major recreation outdoor facilities including stadiums, racecourses, theme parks and zoos, capped at 5,000 people

  • Attend ticketed and seated outdoor events of up to 500 people

  • Attend indoor entertainment including cinemas, theatres, music halls, museums and galleries

  • Have up to 50 guests at weddings and funerals

Most of these freedoms are subject to the four square metre rule and other caps.

Related: NSW Covid vaccination rate by suburb: check the percentages in your postcode – interactive map


Video: Construction ban decision ‘made by public health team’ (Sky News Australia)

NSW is trialling its vaccine certificate in the Service NSW app in regional areas including Dubbo, although there are concerns the two-week trial will not be complete when the 70% mark is reached in early October.

Victoria

Victoria’s roadmap also sets out the freedoms vaccinated people will enjoy, subject to density limits and caps on numbers.

At the 70% adult vaccination rate (estimated to be 26 October), a fully vaccinated person may:

  • Attend a restaurant

  • Send their children to childcare

  • Do physical recreation, community sport, tours and outdoor entertainment in groups of up to 50

  • Gather in a larger group for an outdoor religious service or at a community facility

  • Attend hairdressers, beauty or personal care

At the 80% vaccination rate (estimated to be 5 November), a fully vaccinated person may:

  • Go to work, instead of working from home

  • Attend adult education

  • Attend nightclubs

Other jurisdictions

© Provided by The Guardian The ACT will not require vaccine passports due to human rights concerns. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock

The ACT government has made clear it will not require vaccine passports due to human rights concerns, extremely high demand for vaccination in the territory, and the limited use for them in the short window between 70% and 80% vaccination rates.

The Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan, has said “you’ll need a vaccine passport to do certain things” including flying overseas, interstate travel and possibly also to attend sporting events.

In early September, the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, declined to say whether vaccine certificates would be needed, citing the fact there was no Delta in the state.

The Tasmanian premier, Peter Gutwein, has said he is not against the idea but a vaccine passport won’t be implemented until every Tasmanian has had the opportunity to get vaccinated.

The South Australian premier, Steven Marshall, is reportedly in favour, but wants the commonwealth to coordinate the efforts.

Business requirements on customers

On 6 August Morrison said the solicitor general had advised it was “unlikely” that requiring customers to be vaccinated would infringe discrimination laws.

“Ultimately, [they’re] choices for the businesses themselves,” Morrison said.

Discrimination law expert Liam Elphick agrees, stating that “choosing not to be vaccinated against Covid-19” is not a “protected attribute” in discrimination law.

“While people can choose not to get vaccinated against Covid-19, businesses are equally free to choose not to permit them entry,” he says.

This means that even if public health orders do not require proof of vaccination, unvaccinated Australians may be unable to access certain events and businesses.

Organisers of major events overseas, such as Bruce Springsteen concerts on Broadway, already require vaccination to attend.

But the Australian Human Rights Commission has warned that businesses should seek legal advice and “carefully consider the position of vulnerable groups in the community before imposing any blanket Covid-19 vaccination policies or conditions”.

Imposing a blanket condition, with no exemptions for people with medical conditions for example, may breach discrimination law, it said.

Borders

© Provided by The Guardian A closed road at the Queensland-NSW border on Wednesday. To enter Queensland, essential workers must be able to show they have received at least one dose of a Covid vaccine. Photograph: Jason O’Brien/EPA

Vaccine passports may be needed to travel between states, as well as internationally.

Western Australia already requires proof that an eligible person has received at least one dose of a vaccine if they are travelling from “high” or “extremely high” risk jurisdictions (currently Victoria and NSW).

At the Queensland-NSW border, essential workers must be able to show they have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.

As vaccine certificates have not yet been integrated into check-in apps, these states use an immunisation history statement or Covid-19 digital certificate, available via the Medicare app and MyGov.

The Northern Territory chief minister, Michael Gunner, has announced that once its borders open with 80% of adults fully vaccinated, unvaccinated travellers from at-risk Covid zones will be barred.

Will this be permanent?

Last Friday Morrison suggested that vaccine passports to enter pubs, clubs and other businesses might be temporary.

“What I actually think will happen … I think we’ll move through these phases,” Morrison told 3AW Radio.

“I think there will be a phase, particularly as you go into 70%, to 80%, where you’ve got to exercise that caution, as we’re already seeing in NSW and as Victoria is moving towards, you’ll start to open up.”

Barr said on Wednesday that no state had “gone on the record to say that they intend to make permanent these discriminatory measures, so one would hope they would only be temporary in jurisdictions that do adopt them”.

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