Procuring Passports: Lessons from Germany’s vaccine certificate program
As Canada introduces vaccine passports for international travel, learning from other countries will be helpful.
Canada is moving quickly to adopt a national vaccine passport for international travel. Although a federal framework requires extensive consultation with provincial, territorial, and international partners, the federal government plans to announce the details later today.
A national vaccine passport will offer a number of advantages to Canadian travellers. For starters, it will guarantee that fully vaccinated Canadians can visit their loved ones in other countries. In addition to offering a tool that can be recognized globally, the national passport will scale up provincial and territorial efforts to require proof of vaccination.
Another advantage to a national option is the impact it will have on increasing vaccine uptake. Drawing on observations from Alberta, the announcement of the province’s vaccine passport introduction led to a significant boost in the number of doses administered over the following week. A similar bump will likely occur during the implementation of the national framework.
Despite the protests that occurred during the 2021 federal election, vaccine passports enjoy strong levels of support from the public and the private sector. Although a national certificate system will make travel and business easier to conduct, there are a number of technical challenges that must be addressed by policymakers.
Concerns have been raised about its constitutional and privacy implications. The responsibility for healthcare service administration, while shared by federal and provincial/territorial governments, is administered primarily by the latter. As such, subnational governments will need a buy-in before the health information of their residents can be accessed or incorporated into a national framework. The tech aspects of such a system will also need to be considered. Given the existing patchwork of provincial passport systems, federal policymakers will need to give weight to the pros and cons of validation methods such as QR code scanning.
From a procurement perspective, the federal government will need to consider how the contract to develop the passports will be awarded. In reflecting on the issues facing the COVID Alert app, Canadian policy makers should ask whether a solution should be developed in-house or outsourced to a vendor with more technical expertise. Additionally, Canada would benefit from a national vaccine passport that is awarded based on a competitive and fair procurement process.
These challenges are not impossible to tackle, but policymakers may want to pay close attention to how comparator countries overcame similar issues in their own passport implementations. Germany may offer a good starting point for such a case study.
In the European Union, each member state is in charge of issuing vaccine certificates through health services such as testing centres and hospitals. Although the European Commission provided member states with a roadmap for how to integrate their passport applications across the EU, it was the responsibility of each country to develop their own app.
Germany’s response to the EU requirement was CovPass — an app that allows residents to provide proof of vaccination status. Released in June 2021, CovPass demonstrates how a solution can be developed that respects: 1) regional healthcare responsibilities, 2) health record privacy, and 3) competition and fairness in procurement.
Similar to Canada, Germany has a federal system that divides responsibilities between the central government and the country’s 16 states. In Germany, regional health departments are responsible managing local public health efforts, while the central government coordinates national policy objectives.
CovPass overcomes the issue of decentralization by making states responsible for issuing passports to residents. The national government, through the Federal Ministry of Health (Bundesministerium für Gesundheit), manages the CovPass application itself and ensures its mutual recognition with those introduced by other EU member states.
The QR codes issued through the CovPass app are recognized across the EU, but the details of the user’s vaccination status are stored privately in the working memory of their smartphone. This method ensures that health records remain secure for app users.
Given the complexity of Germany’s CovPass system, the government outsourced the app’s development through a competitive process to a consortium led by IBM. The €2.7M ($4.0M) award required the supplier to create an app that safeguards data while allowing for integration with EU partners.
It is interesting to note that the procurement process for CovPass did not follow the German government’s conventional rules for awarding high-value contracts. Instead, the bidding process was issued through a negotiated procurement without prior publication. This approach is permitted during periods of extreme urgency such as a public health crisis. Despite the lack of publication notice, the German government undertook a points-based bidding process for CovPass to ensure that quality and price were given strong consideration. One reason for IBM’s success was that its consortium would subcontract 51% of the award value to partners such as Ubirch — a company specializing in blockchain solutions.
The process taken to implement CovPass highlights some important lessons for Canadian policymakers. First, provincial and territorial health authorities can maintain their jurisdiction in a national vaccine passport program by being responsible for issuing the passes themselves. Second, the federal government should ensure that the passport app requires only a minimal amount of health record information. Additionally, any information required for a passport to be issued should be stored internally with an option for automatic deletion after a few weeks. Finally, a points-based evaluation can help the government maintain a degree of fairness when awarding a contract. Procurement officers should give additional consideration to joint ventures that subcontract work to other partners.
Whether the federal government incorporates these lessons will become evident in the coming weeks, but it is clear that Canada can benefit from introducing a national vaccine passport that upholds federalism, safeguards privacy, and maintains fairness in procurement. Germany’s CovPass app may teach Canada how to get it right.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Government of Canada.