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Jack Tame: Vaccine certificates should have been ready months ago

OPINION:

Vaccine certificates are about to become a big part of our lives.

In much the same way we use the Covid-19 Tracer App to scan in at different premises, we’ll be scanning the QR codes on our vaccine certificates almost everywhere we go. Under the Government’s new traffic light plan, hospitality and retail businesses have massive incentives to demand proof of vaccination from all of their customers.

Personally, the certificates make a lot of sense. They’ll make it safer for people to gather in groups and they’ll incentivise some vaccine-hesitant people to go and get the jab.

But when will they actually be ready?

A month ago, when Grant Robertson first confirmed the Government was planning to use certificates, he said they’d aim to introduce them at the start of November.

Two weeks later, Dr Ashley Bloomfield had a different date in mind. The vaccine certificates, he said, should be ready in “late November”.

Yesterday, the timeline appeared to change again.

“From mid-December, everyone in New Zealand should be able to access a digital vaccination certificate,” said the official Covid-19 website.

After the discrepancy in dates was questioned, the wording on the Covid-19 website was promptly changed.

“From later this year, everyone in New Zealand should be able to access a digital vaccination certificate,” it said.

Then, late last night the website changed again, this time to “the end of November”.

So is it mid-November, late-November, or mid-December that vaccine certificates in New Zealand will be downloadable and fully functional, where an individual’s QR code can be scanned and cross-checked against a national database while protecting their private medical information?

I might be accused of splitting hairs except for a couple of reasons.

If we take the latest of those different dates and vaccine certificates aren’t fully functional until mid-December, there’s a chance Auckland’s DHBs will reach the golden 90 per cent vaccination threshold before the certificates are ready to go.

But fundamentally, if you think I shouldn’t be quibbling over four or six weeks, you’re right!

It’s astonishing New Zealand doesn’t have a fully functional vaccine passport system already developed and tested. Almost every developed country has a system in place. Israel launched its vaccine passport system in February. New York introduced vaccine passports in March. As National’s Chris Bishop pointed out yesterday, Cuba has a vaccine passport system. Burkina Faso has a vaccine passport system!

But as recently as the start of August, in an interview with the Herald’s Claire Trevett, Jacinda Ardern ruled out using vaccine passports in New Zealand. This was at a time when New South Wales was already recording hundreds of new infections a day.

Naivety or hubris? Why wouldn’t New Zealand need vaccine passports when everyone else did? What makes us so special?

At the very least, the delay points to complacency. The development of a domestic vaccine passport system should have been a priority from the moment we placed our order with Pfizer, even if it later proved New Zealand never needed to use it.

That vaccine certificates aren’t already functional tells us officials did not sufficiently prepare for a scenario in which New Zealand couldn’t eliminate the virus.

We’ve been caught flat-footed with vaccine certificates because we thought we were different to everyone else. We thought we were better.

We were wrong.

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