Coronavirus: Experts react to Government's vaccine certificate announcement, say it poses 'number of legal questions'

Legal and digital experts are raising questions over the Government's announcement that COVID-19 vaccine certificates will be available for New Zealanders in November.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the Government is still figuring out when the certificate will need to be used, with details to be announced in the coming weeks, but confirmed they will be required to attend high-risk large-scale events. 

The certificates will be different from the cards people are given when they get their vaccine.

Professor Claire Breen, from the University of Waikato's law faculty, says vaccine certificates "raise a number of legal questions around civil liberties and human rights".

"[It] will involve balancing various rights, such as the right to freedom of movement, the right to health, and the right to privacy, as well as the rights to equality and freedom from discrimination," she says.

"Current border closures and restricted movements within the country show that these rights can be limited, but such restrictions must be justifiable. Equally, Te Tiriti o Waitangi must also inform such decisions so as to achieve equitable outcomes for Māori, in health and other areas that may be affected by the introduction of vaccine certificates."

Ardern described the COVID-19 vaccine as a "ticket to freedom" earlier on Tuesday, saying getting it is the best way to guarantee access to a summer festival.

Dr Andrew Chen, a research fellow at the University of Auckland's Koi Tū - Centre for Informed Futures, says the key purpose of introducing vaccine certificates is to reduce the level of risk around the spread of COVID-19 by limiting the opportunities for the virus to spread among unvaccinated people.

"There are two aspects of the vaccination certificate to consider - the technical side of how the certificate is generated reliably and securely, and the policy side of how the certificate is used to determine access to certain venues," he says.

Dr Chen says a separate technical system and app are being used to provide the vaccine certificate, rather than incorporating it into the NZ COVID Tracer app. This is because the app is anonymous and doesn't rely on being tied to your identity, so a vaccine certificate unique to everyone would "compromise that privacy-protecting design".

But the policy side around how the certificates will be used appears to be in flux, he says, as it's still being developed and decisions are made.

"There are still several outstanding policy questions to be considered. For example, there are different types of vaccinations with varying levels of efficacy available globally, so how they may or may not be recognised is important," he says.

"The use of vaccination certificates will also be seen as unfair for individuals who are unvaccinated for legitimate reasons, such as those with allergies to vaccination ingredients or those impacted by structural inequalities in the vaccination rollout.

"Māori and Pasifika have lower rates of vaccination at this stage, so the use of vaccine certificates may be discriminatory."

He adds that any vaccination certificate needs to be usable by all people, regardless of whether they have access to digital technology or not, so it has to support a paper format primarily given that access in an app is for convenience.