In the absence of a Covid-19 vaccine, technology facilitating contact tracing and validated health records has stepped in to restore confidence in governments, businesses and the people to resume some form of normal life.
But for global travel to return, TTG Asia’s Marissa Carruthers finds out that a singular and globally recognised health passport is needed.
Since the pandemic outbreak early this year, governments across the globe have been implementing a series of digital solutions to curb the spread of the virus, safely re-start economies, and lift border restrictions.
These include the use of contact tracing tools, GPS and Bluetooth, mobile phone applications, artificial intelligence, digital thermometers and wearable technology. Hong Kong was among the first to lead the way, when it launched in mid-March StayHomeSafe as a vital tool to track and enforce 14-day quarantine on everyone entering the country. Under the scheme, all arrivals are required to wear an electronic wristband that synchronises with a mobile app downloaded at the border.
Singapore was also quick to push out its TraceTogether app. According to national technology agency GovTech, 2.5 million people – about 45 percent of the population – have downloaded the app to date. Coupled with a series of other technology-led initiatives, including a nationwide SafeEntry Check-in procedure via QR code or official identity card, this has helped the nation to gradually ease movement restrictions.
Poh Chi Chuan, Singapore Tourism Board’s acting chief technology officer, said: “The ability to test and trace at scale is critical in restoring the confidence to travel again.” He added that the government has increased testing capacity to cater to air passengers. Changi Airport now has a facility to swab up to 10,000 arrivals a day.
As various contact tracing measures get adopted globally, concerns around privacy issues, reliability and effectiveness have arisen.
Michael McCloskey, CEO of Bright Pattern, said: “Technology for tracking creates a visual depiction of the virus spread in communities and can be used as a guide for border and travel restrictions. This technology comes at a high cost and is unpopular with certain countries due to privacy issues.”
Bright Pattern was deployed by South Korea’s Centre for Disease Control for citizen outreach and contact tracing when the country launched a massive, technology-reliant test and trace campaign to combat the spread of Covid-19. This includes entry registration for nightclubs and gyms, health-monitoring phone apps and a high-tech remote contact centre powered by Bright Pattern.
In response to privacy concerns, Singapore launched a TraceTogether token in October to complement the earlier app. The Ministry of Health Singapore said this is aimed at people who do not have access to smartphones, such as the elderly, or who do not want to download the app. The small and handy token can be worn around the neck or carried in the pocket.
By December, it will be mandatory to check-in at all public venues with the TraceTogether app or token as the country gears up to enter phase three of re-opening.
Privacy concerns also emerged in Hong Kong. Arthur Chan, CEO and president of Hong Kong-based Compathnion Technology, which developed the StayHomeSafe system alongside the government and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said such worries were addressed by building StayHomeSafe upon geo-fencing technology that does not capture user identity or precise positioning, instead of GPS and Bluetooth location tracking which are deemed more invasive.
A necessary combination
While health screening has been widely adopted as a tool to mitigate Covid-19 spread, Michael McCloskey, CEO of Bright Pattern, said that relying on the procedure alone has limitations.
Bright Pattern was deployed by South Korea’s Centre for Disease Control for citizen outreach and contact tracing when the country launched a massive, technology-reliant test and trace campaign to combat the spread of Covid-19.
This includes entry registration for nightclubs and gyms, health-monitoring phone apps and a high-tech remote contact centre powered by Bright Pattern.
He explained: “Health screening requires a lot of management, regulation and money to do widespread testing.” Meanwhile, Robert Quirke, president and CEO of Dublin-based ROQU Group, a company that works with international governments on projects of national importance, said standalone contact tracing programmes are inadequate.
Noted Quirke: “The virus moves fast, technology moves fast, but very often governments do not.”
Experts have thus concluded that a combination of measures is more efficient – and that provides the structure for a health passport.
ROQU Group’s Health Passport made its debut in August as a digital platform designed to facilitate increased Covid-19 testing for businesses and the public. It combines digital technologies with validated Covid-19 tests that deliver results within 15 minutes.
This aims to ease the safe return to business, sport, entertainment, hospitality and, eventually, travel. It is currently being trialled in Ireland, with plans for it to be rolled out to other destinations in 4Q2020.
Quirke said: “The Health Passport is designed to allow businesses to remain open and society to function as normal by supporting proactive testing. Until a vaccine becomes available, Health Passport is the breakthrough society has been waiting for in terms of a return to normal life and travel.”
He added when it comes to easing open borders, health passports have a huge role to play. Said Quirke: “Quite simply, health passports can be the game-changer for tourism while we wait for a vaccine.”
Similarly, US-based Zero is utilising its contact tracing app with a health pass and safe zone apps to stem the Covid-19 spread and facilitate a safe return to public activities.
Zero’s health pass stores individual health documents and can link to accredited testing labs, as well as be customised to individual business needs. The safe zone app allows businesses to detail safety measures carried out onsite to instil customer confidence, with consumers able to verify this through ratings.
CEO Teddy Gold said: “Our mission is to leverage technology and use it to help slow the spread of Covid-19 and safely re-open businesses and borders.”
Gold believes that the importance of health passports will only increase once there is a vaccine. “Having the ability to quickly show you’ve been vaccinated with a time stamp and medical authority on your phone to get access into an airport or business is just as important, if not more, than now,” he remarked.
Another leader in the global health passports being developed is the CommonPass programme, which aims to produce a global, interoperable framework to safely restore cross-border travel to pre-pandemic levels. CommonPass is the work of The Commons Project, a non-profit public trust building global digital services and platforms, and is supported by the World Economic Forum.
As a global health status tool, the CommonPass verifies travellers’ data, including Covid-19 tests and eventually vaccinations, to ensure it complies with individual countries’ entry requirements.
In October, United Airlines and Cathay Pacific started trialling the CommonPass on flights connecting the UK and US, and Hong Kong and Singapore respectively.
Travellers take a test at a certified lab – under the pilot scheme, rapid test stations were located at Heathrow Airport – and upload the results to the app before completing health questionnaires required by the destination to be scanned by airlines and border control.
Paul Meyers, The Commons Project Foundation CEO, said the ultimate aim is to provide a safe and standardised platform to restore confidence among travellers and encourage countries to start lifting border restrictions and quarantines.
In deploying a mix of measures, Quirke urged a coordinated approach. “Public health departments have been quick to recognise the ability of Health Passport to manage and minimise the risks of Covid-19, but they are also operating and promoting their own contact tracing programmes, whose flaws unfortunately have allowed gaps to appear in national testing programmes.”
These problems could lead to public confusion due to an overload of information in relation to Covid-19, he opined.
A coordinated approach among governments is also needed for infection control solutions to bring about global travel confidence. Contact tracing programmes and digital health passports must be internationally recognised and comply with countries’ varying standards.
Albert Tjoeng, assistant director of corporate communications – Asia Pacific with the International Air Transport Association, said systematic testing of all international travellers before departure is “key” to re-opening borders, and solutions that enable passengers to prove test results have an “important role to play”.
He added: “What is essential is test results are stored in a standardised and mutually-recognised manner. Governments must be able to trust the results of tests administered in other countries. Without such mutual recognition, customer confidence will not be restored and industry recovery will be further delayed.”
Also emphasising the critical need for singular approach is Virginia Messina, managing director of the World Travel and Tourism Council.
“If governments work together in an internationally-coordinated approach to create robust rapid and cost-effective testing, effective and widespread contact tracing and further measures, such as health passports, we could begin to more effectively learn to live with the new normal,” she said, adding that quarantines are at best “a band-aid solution” that can “create serious harm in the communities they are used within and against”.
Messina acknowledged that there are presently many testing and contract tracing programmes being trialled, but pointed out that “a standardised international testing protocol is vital to the recovery and would allow the removal of ineffective and costly quarantines.”