Even if you have complied with all of the public health requirements, human error or algorithmic bias can leave you stuck in limbo.
A report published in The Daily Telegraph this weekend has revealed that more than a million vaccine records have fallen prey to NHS blunders, in some cases preventing people from travelling abroad, after the wrong data was recorded by health officials. The NHS Covid Pass is currently recognised by over 30 countries, including the EU, as proof of vaccination status. But the system is far from perfect:
Freedom of Information disclosures reveal 1,072,070 cases in which Covid vaccine records have been corrected.
Experts said the figures from NHS Digital were likely to be the tip of the iceberg, with many errors only coming to light when holidaymakers checked the NHS app and found their pass was missing.
The monthly statistics show the number of corrections peaked in May, in the run-up to the summer holidays, when close to 200,000 records had to be altered.
Many of those affected are plunged into a Kafkaesque nightmare as they try, sometimes in vain, to get their vaccine status corrected. According to the Telegraph article, some end up spending months navigating NHS bureaucracy in an attempt to get their records updated. Some become so desperate they resort to having an extra jab, just so they can qualify for the NHS Covid Pass and travel abroad.
One of the common misconceptions about vaccine passports is that it is only the unvaccinated who will suffer the consequences. The problem with this idea is that it ignores the fact that all of us, vaccinated or not, are now living in a much more heavily controlled society. Even those who are fully vaccinated still have to submit to unfettered tech-enabled surveillance, tracking and forced-compliance in a two-tiered checkpoint society. This despite the fact the vaccine passports, tied as they are to non-sterilising vaccines that were based on the originl Wuhan strain, have failed disastrously to control the spread of COVID-19, let alone eliminate or eradicate it.
It also ignores the fact that vaccine passports, as with any emerging technology, do not operate perfectly. As I note in my book, Scanned: Why Vaccine Passports and Digital IDs Will Mean the End of Privacy and Personal Freedom, “mistakes or biases introduced into algorithms could have profound effects on individual lives and society-wide, possibly becoming more pronounced and entrenched over time.”
Most of the blunders at NHS Digital appear to be a result of human error. NHS staff failed to update vaccine status data when NHS users took their first or second jab, leaving those users trapped in limbo.
NHS Digital is no stranger to controversy, having found itself in deep water last summer over plans to digitise and sell off the health data of up to 55 million patients to just about anyone willing to pay for it. When the scandal broke, in May 2021, NHS Digital backtracked, putting its plans on hold. Its new priority, it said, was to focus on reaching out to patients and reassure them their data is safe.
But that didn’t work out very well given it was soon revealed that NHS Digital had already shared patient data with over 40 pharmaceutical, consultancy and data companies worldwide including KPMG, McKinsey & Company, AstraZeneca, Novavax and a data company co-founded by the Sackler family, who made billions of dollars selling OxyContin, an opiate painkiller stronger than morphine.
Now, it seems that not only is patients’ data not entirely safe; it is also not entirely correct. Here’s more from The Telegraph:
Investigations by The Telegraph uncovered hundreds of cases in which people have been locked out of the vaccine passport system because vaccine centres had recorded the wrong data.
Readers told how they faced missing out on holidays, trips to see loved ones abroad and entry to major events because of the failings. Experts said that, most commonly, the problems resulted from human error when the wrong information was recorded at vaccination centres.
Some of those affected have spent months battling NHS bureaucracy in an attempt to get the crucial update to their records.
Hundreds of Telegraph readers have contacted the newspaper after going round in circles trying to get their records updated.
Some were so desperate they resorted to having a third jab, just so that two were recorded, allowing them to travel abroad.
The silver lining for these people is that the UK government’s vaccine passport scheme is no longer mandatory for domestic purposes in England. This means venues can choose to continue asking customers to provide evidence of their vaccination status or a recent negative test if they wished. And many are doing so. Travelling to the EU or many other parts of the globe also requires proof of vaccine status for those over the age of 11.
Millions of Spaniards in Bureaucratic Limbo
An even bigger scandal has been brewing in Spain where millions of people have suddenly found themselves in limbo after recently contracting Covid-19. In the EU, any citizen who has suffered an infection in the previous 180 days is eligible for the vaccine certificate (though countries such as Germany and France have recently shortened the duration of validity). But that is only if you have had the right test.
During the recent Omicron wave in Spain, as with the Delta wave, the primary care system became so overrun that clinics used the much faster (and cheaper) antigen tests to test patients for infection. But to qualify for the EU’s health certificate on the grounds of natural infection, only a positive PCR test suffices; the results of antigen tests are not currently recognised. In the latest wave just about the only way to get a PCR test in Spain was to go private — and pay the price (roughly €80+).
As a result, many Spaniards and non-Spaniards living in Spain are suddenly finding they have neither a valid vaccination (i.e. from the last 9 months) nor an officially recognised infection. And Spain’s public health authorities are cautioning against taking a booster dose until five months after the COVID-19 infection. This decision came a previous recommendation to take a booster shot just four weeks after recovering from a COVID-19 infection was lambasted by immunologists who warned of the risk of causing “problems in the immune system.”
In other words, if you have just had a natural infection that was validated by an antigen test, you do not qualify for the vaccine passport for at least a period of five months, regardless of whether or not you were fully vaccinated before the infection. On the bright side, if you live in one of the eight (out of 17) autonomous regions of Spain that have lifted their domestic vaccine passport restrictions, you can more or less continue to go about life as normal. If you don’t, you can still take a certain amount of solace in the fact that Spanish authorities have not applied the vaccine passport restrictions nearly as vigorously or as broadly as some other EU Member States (e.g., Italy, France, Germany, Austria, etc.).
When it comes to travelling to other parts of the EU, people in Spain who have been recently infected and antigen-tested will now have to present a negative test result prior to departure. Once they reach their destination, however, they face the prospect of not being able to enter certain public places due to the local vaccine passport restrictions. They will also have difficulties travelling to other jurisdictions that require visitors to have a booster dose of a COVID-19 vaccine for entry.
Here’s one of two ironies: while a positive antigen test is currently not recognised by the EU as proof that you have had a COVID-19 infection, a negative antigen test is recognised as proof that you don’t, for the sake of travelling within the EU/Schengen area. Here’s another irony: more and more European countries, the latest being France, are dropping all testing requirements for fully vaccinated (i.e. boosted) overseas travellers despite the fact the vaccine offers virtually no protection against catching or spreading the Omicron variant. It is a wonderful example of the new “let-it-rip” approach to virus management.
For the moment there is no way of knowing exactly just how many formerly fully vaccinated people in Spain are now stuck in limbo. So far, during the latest wave Spain’s health care system has registered 3.5 million positive antigen test results. What we don’t know is how many of the people who tested positive had already had a third booster and therefore still qualify for the vaccine passport (at least for a few more months).
In response to the scandal, the European Commission has proposed allowing the results of high-quality lab-run antigen tests to qualify as proof of a recent infection. But the proposal still needs the blessing of the European Parliament and European Council. Until then, an indeterminate number of Spaniards, vaccinated and unvaccinated alike, must continue waiting in limbo. Many of those who can’t wait will probably take another jab before the recommended five-month grace period has elapsed.