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Services Australia CEO Rebecca Skinner on Thursday said that Australia’s digital vaccination certificates for international travel would be ready in two to three weeks.

Skinner, who appeared before Australia’s COVID-19 Select Committee, provided the update when explaining how the upcoming visible digital seal (VDS) would operate.

The VDS is Australia’s answer for indicating a person’s COVID-19 vaccination status for international travel; it will link a person’s vaccination status with new digital vaccination certificates and border declarations.

Skinner said her agency was working to make the VDS accessible to fully vaccinated people through the MedicareExpress Plus app. To access the VDS through the MedicareExpress Plus app, Skinner said users would need to provide additional passport details along with the consent to share their immunisation history with the Australian Passport Office. The data would then be sent to the Passport Office to determine whether the user is eligible to receive a VDS.

The approval process performed by the passport office will be automated, Service Australia Health Programmes general manager Jarrod Howard said, and would entail the Passport Office checking whether the person is fully vaccinated.

Due to the process being automated, Howard said people could re-apply for a VDS “in a matter of seconds” at the airport in the event there is an error with a VDS.

Once approved, Howard said the VDS would be available on the Medicare Express Plus App and allow for verification on third-party apps.

Providing a timeline for when VDS would be ready, Skinner told the committee she expected it to be ready in the next two to three weeks, or before the end of October at the latest. 

While noting the digital vaccination certificate for international travel was coming soon, she adamantly refused to call the VDS a vaccine passport as an official passport is still required. Outgoing travellers from Australia will not be allowed to travel abroad without the VDS or another authorised digital vaccination certificate, however, even if they have a passport.

Australia’s Trade Minister Dan Tehan earlier this month said the VDS system has already been sent to all of Australia’s overseas embassies in order to begin engagement with overseas posts and overseas countries regarding international travel.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, meanwhile, has already put out a verification app, called the VDS-NC Checker, onto Apple’s App Store, which the department hopes will be used at airports to check people onto flights.

International travel for fully vaccinated people living in Australia is currently expected by Christmas, with Tehan confirming that the official date would be when 80% of the country is fully vaccinated.

Digital vaccination certificate for state check-in apps to undergo trial

On the domestic front, fully vaccinated Australians may soon be able to add digital vaccination certificates to state-based check-in apps, Skinner said.

She said there would eventually be an additional feature on the MedicareExpress App that allows users to add their COVID-19 immunisation history to state-based check-in apps.

The process for adding the digital vaccination certificate to state-based check-in apps will be similar to accessing the VDS, except users will not need to provide their passport details.

Consent must first be provided for the data to be added to state-based apps, Skinner said.

The consent provided by users will last for 12 months, with users needing to provide consent again in order for the immunisation information to continue to appear on the state-based apps.  

Services Australia envisions this process occurring through a security token being passed to the relevant state authority once consent is provided. The security token will have data showing a person’s COVID-19 immunisation history and other information such as an individual health identifier.

That data would be stored in the Australian Immunisation Register (AIR) database, which is maintained by Services Australia on behalf of the Department of Health.

Currently, those fully vaccinated can only add their digital vaccination certificate to Apple Wallet or Google Pay. Those not eligible for Medicare who are fully vaccinated, meanwhile, can call the Australian Immunisation Register for a hard copy, or use the Individual Healthcare Identifiers service through myGov for a digital version.

Trials to implement the COVID-19 digital certificate on state-based apps will start in New South Wales next week. Of Australia’s states and territories, only New South Wales has officially signed up to trial the new feature so far, however.

“Our approach has been particularly for high volume venues to reduce friction on both staff in those venues and also friction for customers to leverage the current check-in apps that all of the jurisdictions currently have,” Services Australia Deputy CEO of Transformation Projects Charles McHardie said.

When asked why Services Australia was not focusing on introducing the digital vaccination certificate through a national app, like COVIDSafe, McHardie explained that this was due to Australia’s public health orders being issued at a state level.

McHardie conceded, however, that incoming travellers could potentially be required to install up to eight different apps to adhere to Australia’s various state check-in protocols.  

Howard added that check-in apps from certain states and territories — ACT, Northern Territory, Queensland, and Tasmania — had interoperability with each other due to these apps using the same background technology.  

According to DTA acting-CEO Peter Alexander, who also appeared before the committee, the bungled COVIDSafe app has cost AU$9.1 million as of last week. New South Wales and Victoria have been the only states to use information from the app.

The AU$9.1 million figure is in line with the January update that the COVIDSafe app costs around AU$100,000 per month to run. At the end of January, total spend for the app was AU$6.7 million.   

At the time of writing, around 11 million people living in Australia are fully vaccinated. Of those people, 6.3 million have downloaded a digital vaccination certificate.

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