Credentials versus passports

Verified information that you are safe - the Danish way

Welcome to Plugging the Gap (my email newsletter about Covid-19 and its economics). In case you don’t know me, I’m an economist and professor at the University of Toronto. I have written lots of books including, most recently, on Covid-19. You can follow me on Twitter (@joshgans) or subscribe to this email newsletter here. (I am also part of the CDL Rapid Screening Consortium. The views expressed here are my own and should not be taken as representing organisations I work for.)

Last week I discussed and dismissed the use of vaccine passports to encourage people to be vaccinated. I worried that it would create a dual society, conflict and not help much. My concern was that a “passport” connoted a list of rights and prohibitions by the government and that there were better ways to overcome vaccine hesitancy.

We need to distinguish a “passport” from a “credential.” My goal is to see the economy re-open with as few restrictions as possible. For instance, I know of deans desperately trying to work out what to do for the Fall. Even though we expect all students to be vaccinated, the real concern is that public health officials are unlikely to relax distancing guidelines. That means masks in class which makes discussions difficult and can be discomforting to some. But more practically, that means the continued lowering of density in classrooms which mean that, at best, they operate at 25% capacity which means an ordinary class needs a large hall and there aren’t enough of them. Re-opening a campus means re-opening without such restrictions.

None of these things would be necessary if we believed that all students were at low risk of being infectious. Vaccines are one part of that. The other part is regular screening. The combination of the two is a day-to-day calculation of your risk profile. If you are below some threshold, then you should be able to enter places without any restrictions. If not, you cannot. The challenge — and it is the whole challenge of the pandemic — is both individuals and others knowing that risk score.

Denmark is rolling out a solution. Here’s the BBC.

It's a digital app on your phone which shows whether you have had a negative test result within the last 72 hours, a certificate of vaccination or proof of a previous infection two to 12 weeks earlier. It can also be in paper form if necessary.

Digital certificates are seen as Europe's route out of lockdown, and the EU wants to have its scheme in place across all 27 member states by the end of June.

Here is how it works:

  • The pass works off a smartphone app called MinSundhed (MyHealth), linked to the Danish ID system

  • All residents have a unique ID number, called a CPR, and a yellow health card with a barcode containing their ID details

  • The card is scanned when you take a test at a government centre and your sample is linked to it

  • Private providers scan your card or write down your CPR - you get a text message linking through to the result

  • You log on to the app and access digital health records or coronapas

  • You present your phone to enter relevant businesses, and staff check its validity against an ID

  • Paper certificates are accepted too and younger children are exempt. A more advanced app is set to replace MyHealth next month.

And here is how Denmark is faring with about a fifth of the population with a first dose.

Businesses are resisting it because it currently requires them to turn away customers. In other words, it is being used as a passport rather than credentials.

But the basis of it — verified information — can be used as credentials where different organisations can rely on it to create policies that allow them to manage their own Covid-19 risk going forward. In other words, it is an information substrate that allows markets to function more effectively.

While it is certainly true that there is a thin line between credentials (information that people can choose to use) and a passport (information that people are forced to use), this is the kind of nuance that can allow us to manage individual risk, provide comfort and real safety and learn to live with an infectious disease. It is that thin line that the CDL Rapid Screening Consortium has been rolling out and one of its benefits is that it allows employers to choose their own policies to a large degree. I think there is room for more there.