Could vaccine passports move the economic needle?

By Lawrence Chia

Some reflection is perhaps in order as we approach the second anniversary of COVID-19’s initial outbreak. 

 Hong Kong’s operating businesses have weathered the worst of the pandemic so far and even have cause for optimism: official figures show economic sentiment improving in several key areas. This is hopefully set to continue, with recent measures such as the Consumption Voucher Scheme goosing consumer spending.

 When we reflect on the bigger picture, though, it becomes clear that COVID-19 and its potential for economic disruption will continue to loom for at least as long as a significant proportion of the world’s population remains unvaccinated. And with new COVID variants such as Mu threatening to ‘outwit’ currently available vaccines, it may be years before the threat fully recedes.

 In other words, optimism should be tempered with caution. The IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook, released in July, illustrates the point, revising the forecast for advanced economies upwards, while showing curbed growth prospects for other economies in light of recent COVID-19 waves. The outlook for emerging markets has also dimmed due to inadequate access to vaccines and uncertain fiscal support.

 The good news is that once we accept that ‘business as usual’ can’t and likely won’t resume in the foreseeable future, we can begin to devise new strategies, practices and technologies to make the best of an unstable situation. For the MICE industry, this means finding ways to make events as inherently ‘virus proof’ as possible, enabling exhibitions, trade shows, conferences, spectator sports, etc, to carry on as scheduled under most conditions.

 A massive example of the ‘state of the art’ in COVID safety is the coming Expo Dubai, which expects 25 million visitors over a six-month duration starting on 1 October. Temperature checks, mandatory indoor and outdoor mask-wearing and social distancing are the basics. While proof of vaccination is not mandatory for attendance, it is ‘encouraged’ – and free vaccinations will be available on-site for official representatives of participating countries. Notably, the Expo site will also include three COVID-19 testing and medical facilities, complete with ambulances. 

 Though considerably smaller in scale, the HKTDC Hong Kong Book Fair was in at least one key way even more stringent in its anti-COVID measures: all exhibitors and staff were required to provide proof of full vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test result, while visitors were required to use the ‘LeaveHomeSafe’ app to register for the event. Tickets for the Fair were either purchased in advance online or via app, or at the door via Octopus, with no paper tickets issued.

 A similar approach is expected to be taken at CES, the famous international consumer electronics and technology show; when it returns to a physical format in Las Vegas in January 2022, all attendees will be required to present proof for vaccination. 

 That some form of ‘vaccine passport’ may become a routine feature of any mass activity is underlined by Germany’s adoption of the so-called ‘3G rule’ of geimpft, genesen, getestet (vaccinated, recovered, tested). This essentially lifts limits on attendance as long as all visitors provide proof of at least one of the ‘Gs’ and the organisers have drawn up a ‘hygiene concept’. For events anticipating more than 5,000 participants, the ‘concept’ must be submitted to health authorities for approval.

 It should be noted that forms of ‘3G’ are also being applied in other sectors such as F&B, gyms and retail, in many countries and cities around the globe. In some cases, ‘vaccine passports’ are also being used as an incentive for the remaining unvaccinated to get their jabs and fully rejoin society. 

 With new coronavirus variants constantly evolving, the approach may not prove to be the absolute last word in the response to the pandemic, but it should at least limit the potential for new outbreaks. For MICE and other sectors, it’s the best chance yet for business to resume a substantial degree of normalcy. 

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