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Getting back to normal

Why Denmark’s “corona passport” is more of a promise than a plan

Details are thin, but business leaders and technology companies are increasingly eager to roll out apps to boost travel and the economy.

February 10, 2021
Acting Minister of Finance Morten Boedskov faces the media at the Ministry of Finance in Copenhagen
Martin Sylvest / Ritzau via AP

When acting Danish finance minister Morten Bødskov announced last week that Denmark would soon launch a digital “corona passport,” the news spread rapidly around the world. For many, the promise of an app that would enable people to prove they were vaccinated against covid-19 or otherwise immune was exciting: it suddenly put international travel, restaurant meals, nights at movie theaters, and even massive music festivals within reach once again.

Bødskov was bullish about the prospects for such a system. “We are taking the first steps,” he said, so that “in three to four months, a digital corona passport will be ready for use for things like business trips.”

The initiative seemed to be in keeping with Denmark’s relatively decisive approach to the pandemic. In March 2020 it was one of the first countries in Europe to institute a lockdown to try to contain the virus, and in November it was quick to order a cull of farmed minks when a new variant spotted in the animals was linked to 12 cases in humans. In truth, though, the “corona passport” announcement was more a statement of intent than an actual launch. 

The Danish government may have an aggressive timeline, but it has released few details of its plans. It has not specified what information the passport will contain, nor has it even issued a call for tenders yet. And once it does, say experts, it will have to grapple with the same thorny health and ethical issues that have stymied similar certification efforts around the world. 

“Ready in a week”

The corona passport is intended to speed a return to normal, but what it will look like is still under discussion.

“Our suggestion is that it work digitally, like an app,” says Henriette Søltoft, deputy director of the Confederation of Danish Industry, which is partnering with the government to develop the project. “And that it will be automatically updated. If you get a new test result, it will show up there.” 

Technologically, the passport isn’t terribly complicated. Phones already carry health information, and for months companies have been working to develop the required software—and lobbying for it to be used. Martin Petersen Lennards, the Danish public sector leader for IBM Global Business Services, says his company’s tool is pretty much ready to go. 

“It will combine data on tests and vaccination, depending on local government rules,” he says. “You as a citizen just download the app and consent that the data be shared. Then, when you enter an airplane or a concert or a restaurant, it generates a QR code for the business to scan. From the front end, it’s rather simple.”

The back end, however, is a little more complicated. Because it entails exchanging sensitive data securely, both privacy and fraud are important concerns. IBM is using the blockchain to manage this; other providers, such as The Commons Project, propose different solutions.

Overall, what Denmark is aiming for sounds a lot like other systems that have been suggested but not yet released. But given the country’s small size and high degree of centralization—to say nothing of specific cultural values—it is better positioned than most to eventually carry it out. 

Lennards says IBM could have a pilot passport ready to go within a week and could easily roll the project out nationally in months, largely thanks to the country’s combination of centralized health information and a single online identity authentication system, called NEM-ID, that citizens already use for banking, taxes, and communication with the government. 

Working out exactly how the passport will be deployed promises to be stickier, however. In order to fully reopen the economy, business leaders like Søltoft are pressing for the passport to include more than just vaccination status—that is, to treat covid negativity or prior infection on an equal footing with immunization. “People have to understand that a corona passport is not just for vaccine certification. It should also include negative test results and note if you have immunity because you’ve had the virus and recovered,” she says. 

“Concerned with tech, not with health"

But the public health implications of such a move worry some scientists. Allan Randrup Thomsen, a virologist at the University of Copenhagen, thinks the passport is a good idea generally, but he’s concerned about treating a negative test as equivalent to a vaccine—as well as other aspects of the plan. 

“So far, [the initiative] has mostly been concerned with the tech, and not with the health limitations,” he says. “But as a virologist, I can see there are holes.” 

"I know business has a vested interest… but it’s still serious, especially in the current situation, where we’re trying to get everyone vaccinated."

Even with a high degree of effectiveness, for example, vaccines leave a significant segment of the inoculated vulnerable to infection. “A passport can help open a medium-size venue like a theater, but it’s much riskier with a music festival like Roskilde,” he says, referring to an annual event that is one of the biggest such festivals in Europe. “Maybe it’s 90% effective, but if there are 100,000 people there, there are still 5,000 people who won’t be protected, even though they have the passport.” 

He is also worried about escape variants like the South African and Brazilian strains, which are proving resistant to some vaccines; not all inoculations are the same, and covid is constantly evolving. “In some cases, the vaccine should be combined with a negative test,” he says. “And in case of travel to countries with certain variants, I still wouldn’t rule out isolation. I know business has a vested interest in that not happening, and that some will say these are a minority of cases. But it’s still serious, especially in the current situation, where we’re trying to get everyone vaccinated.” 

And even if the corona passport is rolled out, Denmark can’t act alone. If normality is to be restored to international travel, other countries will have to accept the document—and perhaps launch certifications of their own. On Monday, Greece and Israel signed a deal that allows vaccinated citizens to travel between the two countries; both Sweden and the UK have announced certification programs to enable their citizens to travel over the summer, and the European Union has said it hopes to generate a uniform set of standards for certification among member states. But France and Germany have so far opposed passports on privacy grounds, and in places like the US, any such plans may be thwarted by a lack of centralized health information. 

As a tiny country with a high degree of digital literacy, Denmark doesn’t face all the same challenges. But as Danish Industry’s Søltoft points out, less tangible values are also working in its favor. For one thing, she says, “people have a high level of trust in each other. We trust our authorities and each other.” It also helps that when it comes to global issues like climate change and gender equality, Denmark has gotten used to positioning itself at the forefront. “We’re so open to the rest of the world,” Søltoft adds. “So if we can lead the way, we’d like to.”

This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by The Rockefeller Foundation.

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