Japan is planning to introduce a vaccine passport this summer to kickstart international travel and the flow of business travelers. But the country’s strict COVID-19 border controls and sluggish vaccination drive raise concerns about preferential treatment for corporate Japan.
Although Japan ruled out the possibility of Olympic athletes jumping the vaccine queue, major companies have been given priority access to COVID-19 vaccines under the government’s latest campaign to speed up the vaccination rollout.
Japan’s vaccination drive lags behind both developed and developing countries. With six weeks until the opening of the Tokyo Olympics, only 15 percent of the population has received one dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, compared to 36 percent in Europe, 63 percent in Israel, 65 percent in Canada, 61 percent in the U.K., 53 percent in the U.S, 25 percent in South Korea, and 15 percent in India.
Japan’s vaccine rollout launched in February, targeting front-line healthcare workers and slowly expanding to senior citizens over 65 in April. Vaccinations for people under 65 will begin after June 21, with the aim of inoculating the entire eligible population by November.
The pandemic has devastated Japan’s tourism and hospitality industry, which was anticipating an influx of overseas spectators attending the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics last year. Japan’s largest business lobby, the Keidanren, along with the Japan Foreign Trade Council (JFTC) and Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), have pushed for the introduction of a vaccine passport to help kickstart business travel and tourism. Chairman of the Japan Foreign Trade Council Kobayashi Ken told reporters that collaborating with other countries to issue a vaccine passport would allow for smooth business travel.
In urban areas where COVID-19 cases are rife, such as Osaka and Fukuoka, vaccinations for the general public are yet to begin. However, priority access has been given to companies, university staff, and students heading overseas in the September academic year. The vaccines will be supplied by the government but will be administered at workplaces by health personnel sourced by each company. All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines Co, and Keio University are some of the first workplaces that invited staff to get the jab this week.
Digital vaccine passports are the latest global trend, and are seen as an “exit strategy” essential for moving into the post-pandemic phase. The EU is taking the lead by unveiling a standardized digital COVID-19 certificate, also known as an “immunity passport,” which certifies that a person has been either vaccinated, tested negative, or has recently recovered from COVID-19. It aims to simplify or exempt travel requirements such as PCR tests and mandatory quarantine for certificate-bearing travelers from the EU’s 27 member states. The EU Covid Certification will be available after July 1.
The Japanese government has appointed Chief Cabinet Secretary Kato Katsunobu to oversee research for a vaccination passport that meets international standards. The EU digital Covid Certification will serve as a model for Japan’s smartphone app. Vaccination information will be supplied from Japan’s centralized Vaccination Record System (VRS), which is operated by the government. Japan is set to first issue paper certification, followed by digital certificates via smartphones toward the end of the year.
Japan will negotiate with other countries on whether Japanese travelers will be exempted from quarantine with Japanese-issued vaccine passports and what conditions will be required for vaccine passport holders of other countries.
As the world shifts to a post-vaccine society, vaccine passports could also spark the possibility of unfair discrimination between vaccinated and unvaccinated people – including people who are unable to access the vaccine or have medical conditions that prohibit vaccination. Some experts are calling for immunity passports to focus on public health rather than revitalizing the travel and tourism sectors. There are also issues about how to handle vaccine certificates from Russia and China, whose shots have not been approved in Japan. The government says they are carefully considering the issue and ways to prevent discrimination.
Japanese companies are eager to return to normalcy. All Nippon Airways is trialing a COVID-19 status app in an effort to revive international travel. The app shows a person’s PCR test results and vaccination status and is being tested in U.S airports.
Israel has also introduced its own domestic “green card,” which guarantees residents entry to gyms, spas, cinemas, and hotels. China has issued digital vaccine certificates via the popular social messaging app WeChat, which documents if a person has been vaccinated or has recovered from the virus recently.