Vaccine passports key to economic recovery, Duterte advisers say

President Duterte's advisers have expressed their support for the legislation that would institutionalize the use of vaccine passports in international and domestic travel, both for essential and non-essential purposes.

A health worker injects a dose COVID-19 vaccine to a woman. (Ali Vicoy/MANILA BULLETIN File Photo)

The Senate finance subcommittee began on Monday, Sept. 13, its discussion on Senate Bill No. 2381, which proposes to implement a vaccine passport program to facilitate the government's COVID-19 immunization program, while allowing more economic activities to cope with the pandemic's impacts.

"The county cannot continue locking down forever, that's going to be a very challenging scenario. I don't think the local government and national government can sustain that kind of model," Presidential Adviser for Entrepreneursip Joey Concepcion said in the Senate hearing.

"Hopefully we can move from a pandemic to an endemic mode, and as we do that, it's very important...that the documentation of these passports really continues," he added.

The proposed vaccine passport, he said, will also be "very critical" as the Philippine government plans to roll out a new scheme for controlling the virus in the National Capital Region (NCR) starting September 16.

Concepcion has been calling on the government to give vaccinated individuals more mobility, including the issuance of a unified vaccine card, to stimulate trade and travel. He also believed that it would encourage people to get inoculated against COVID-19.

"As we try to shift to a granular approach in all these efforts...then vaccine passports are very critical," he said.

Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua also said that enacting a vaccine passport program will help the country in easing quarantine protocols.

"We are entering in a period where this virus may never leave us, it may become endemic, and the best way to manage this is to learn to live with the virus," Chua said in backing SB 2381.

The National Economic and Development Authority director-general and economist said that living with COVID-19 could entail yearly vaccinations, and thus, the need for the said document.

"A vaccine passport, certainly, will be very useful tool to keep track of every person's health," he said.

Chua, however, reminded legislators of making sure that the use of vaccine passport would not discriminate against sectors who are not able to get vaccinated.

"We do not want, of course, those who are not able to get vaccinated out of their be denied some of the benefits," he said, citing pregnant women, those with health conditions, or residents in areas where COVID-19 vaccines are not yet available.

He also pointed out the need to unify existing certifications issued on vaccinations, specifically: the vaccine cards issued by local government units, the certification issued by the Department of Information and Communications Technology, and the "yellow cards" from the Bureau of Quarantine, which the World Health Organization (WHO) created.

Coordination between the national and local governments would also be a challenge, Chua said.

"If the data will be becoming from the LGU and we upload it to the DICT database, we have to work on that coordination," he said, citing issues they encountered in the government's contract tracing efforts.

Under SB No. 2381, individuals partially or fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as showed in their vaccine passport are granted certain benefits or exemptionsm subject to guidelines issued by the government's pandemic task force.

These include non-essential domestic travel; international travels; local checkpoint and quarantine exemptions as well as reduced quarantine time.

Those bearing vaccine passports would also be allowed access to business establishments such as indoor and outdoor dining, entertainment venues, cultural centers or sports venues.

Senator Pia Cayetano, chairperson of the Senate subcommittee and one of the authors of the bill, assured Chua that the bill will not discriminate against unvaccinated people, and will only form part of the protocols in preventing the spread of the virus, such as prohibiting children and senior citizens from going out.

"The intention really here is not have to choose between health and the economy. We want to be able to use technology, we want to be able to make use of our resources to open up the economy in the safest possible way," she explained.

Senator Grace Poe, who filed a similar bill on the matter, said that "by expanding the objectives of the vaccine card, we hope to be able to put the right balance to public health and economy amid the pandemic."

"Yes, we have this argument about different freedoms and anti-discrimination, but I think this is for the greater good. Certain protocols, perhaps in the past, are no longer as necessary as it is now because of the emergency that we’re facing,” she added.