Like many countries around the world, Denmark is desperate to reopen the parts of its economy frozen by the pandemic.
The kingdom of under six million people has become one of the most efficient vaccination distributors in Europe and aims to have offered its whole population a jab by June.
But before that target is reached, there’s pressure for life to get back to normal for Danes already inoculated and to open up borders for Covid-immune travelers from overseas.
Morten Bødskov, Denmark’s acting finance minister, last week raised the prospect of a so-called coronavirus passport being introduced by the end of the month.
“Denmark is still hard hit by the corona pandemic,” he said. “But there are parts of Danish society that need to move forward, and a business community that needs to be able to travel.”
The government has since indicated that a February deadline might be ambitious, but the relatively small Scandinavian country could still become the world’s first to formally embrace the technology to open its borders in this controversial way.
‘This is fundamental’
With exports suffering and crucial business operations stuck in limbo, Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod says the move is vital to keep Denmark ahead of the game – even if the country is under a lockdown until February 28.
“We have more than 800,000 jobs in Denmark that are linked to trading with the world so this is fundamental” he tells CNN.
As one of the world’s most digitized countries, Denmark is ideally placed to become a testing ground for this new technology, drawing on public and private collaboration, says Kofod.
“This is fundamental because if we want to start to export again and trading again, see business people meet again, things like the corona passport are fundamental to making that happen,” he says.
Time running out
Lars Ramme Nielsen of Denmark’s Chamber of Commerce also advocates for rapid adoption of the technology, saying time is of the essence.
“If we do nothing, if we sit and wait, nothing will happen,” he told CNN. “If you start when Covid-19 has left society, it will be too late. With this project we’re very positive we will have a summer of joy, of football, of music. So better get started sooner, now, to plan.”
Despite the apparent imminence of this attempt to unlock its borders, Denmark is currently living under its strictest Covid-19 lockdown to date amid heightened concerns over the spread of the Kent strain of the virus identified in the UK.
That means anyone entering the country must produce a negative Covid test and go into quarantine upon arrival. Restaurants, bars and hairdressers are all closed with gatherings of more than five people banned.
The European soccer championships, which Denmark is scheduled to host this summer, feel like a very distant prospect.
So how will Denmark’s Covid-19 “passport” work?
At least four ready-made solutions exist based broadly on two types of technology. One relies on remote cloud servers where information is stored in bulk. The other uses blockchain, a more complicated system that could be better at protecting privacy.
Since personal medical data is so sensitive, it’s a tricky decision. That’s why many European nations covered by stringent EU privacy laws appear desperate for someone else to go first.
The high level of investment in developing Covid passport systems indicates high private sector optimism that they will become a common way to open borders.
The International Air Transport Association has been working on one since late 2020. Others with options ready to go include the nonprofit Commons Project Foundation, computing giant IBM and secure ID company Clear.
Some of these apps – such as the Commons Project’s cloud-designed CommonPass – are already being used in a limited manner by airlines.
IBM, which has had a worldwide team working on its “Digital Health Pass” for nine months, uses QR codes that can be updated to reveal all sorts of medical data that could be useful as the pandemic progresses.
“This is a global initiative, and we have put this in a toolbox for any government to use,” says Carsten Storner of IBM Denmark. “It’s not just vaccines. We have opened it up to store all relevant data to Covid-19. It’s also your test results, your antigen test and who knows what the future will entail in terms of variants.”
Denmark’s planned passport would be rolled out first to business travelers, eager to rekindle the commerce with foreign markets that accounts for a third of its GDP.
Mette Dobel, regional president of cement and mining firm FLSmidth, knows how crucial it is for her staff to hit the road to open new markets and maintain existing client relationships.
“We are a business that cannot be driven through a web shop,” she tells CNN. “The face to face dialogue, especially on often relatively large projects, is necessary. We have 300 people in Denmark who travel at all times. We need to have our people travel.”
Once the business sector is up and running, the hope is that Denmark’s hospitality and mass entertainment sectors can then adopt the coronavirus passport.
With a strong digital culture, Denmark could be the perfect testing ground for this new technology.
But not everyone welcomes the concept, and there are fears it could create a two-tier society that disadvantages the nonvaccinated.
New mother Chelina Hansen, who is eschewing a vaccine while she’s nursing her infant, has lodged a petition on the Danish parliament’s website to block the plans, with signatories saying the passports violate human rights.
“I’m against it because I am breastfeeding. I think the passport will make it very hard for those who have not or do not want to have the vaccine to navigate in society. I will split us into an A team and a B team,” she says.
Peder Hvelplund, an elected official and health spokesman for the Red-Green Alliance political group, asks why the country can’t wait until everyone is immunized in the summer, which is only a few months away.
“The question is whether this makes sense at all,” he says. “The more people we vaccinate, the more the reproduction rate will drop. It is in the interest of business to reopen for everyone, and allow as many people as possible to take advantage of that.”
Business leaders are divided on the subject.
Trade bodies are lobbying hard for a passport scheme as soon as possible but restaurateurs such as Philip Helgstrand, owner of the Restaurant Strandhotellet in Dragoer, a port town south of Copenhagen, are unhappy.
Helgstrand says it isn’t feasible for small businesses to be responsible for checking and handling each customer’s Covid data, especially for travelers from overseas such as the cruise ship passengers that once made up a large share of his pre-pandemic customers.
“I don’t think it’s fair to us to go and ask everybody who comes into the restaurant,” he says. “We already have to ask ‘have you got a mask? Don’t sit too close to this and that.’ It should be border control’s job and for the police to see the passport.”
These arguments aren’t unique to Denmark.
Last year, advocacy group Privacy International warned vaccine rollouts “must not be seen opportunistically as yet another data grab,” warning that “until everyone has access to an effective vaccine such passports for entry of service will be unfair.”
There are also concerns about how Covid passports could work globally.
After botching the procurement and roll out of coronavirus vaccines, the EU’s next crisis could center upon how to standardize immunization records to safeguard that most central of the bloc’s principles: the Schengen agreement on freedom of movement.
If each country takes a different approach on whether to adopt a Covid-19 passport and chooses different systems, things could get messy quickly.
How each member state views the subject seems to be affected by that state of its finances.
Greece, which faced losing 70% of its tourism revenues last year, is reportedly planning a Covid passport, as is Sweden. Hungary and Poland also both have some form of digital immunity documentation in the works.
Europe’s most powerful countries, Germany and France, have not yet backed such an initiative, despite similar laws already in place for other viral diseases such as yellow fever.
In a newly Brexited Britain, where more than 14 million people have already had their first dose of a vaccine, the concept of a coronavirus passport has received little support, although it is still being debated.
Denmark is aware part of its passport’s success will lie in whether other countries actually recognize it and not just inside the EU bloc.
“Of course, it’s important that there will be recognition of the passport in other countries and that work has to ensure that now,” says Kofod, the Danish foreign minister.
Lars Sandahl Sørensen of the Confederation Danish Industry sees room for the UN and the WHO to get involved in some sort of certification process. Without it, he says, Denmark will be cut off from what it needs to get by.
“Denmark is a nation that deals with and trades with the rest of the world,” he says. “We live off that interaction with the world, so this stops a society like the Danish.
“We want this to be an international project. We want to be able to interact with other countries. But we start in Denmark to show this can be done – mobility in the country but also outside.”