Israel's COVID-19 Green Pass: To renew or not to renew? - analysis

The conversation has turned to what will come next. Will the Green Pass be renewed, either fully or partially, or will it be cancelled in its entirety?

Israeli rock singer Shalom Hanoch Perform in front  people vaccinated against COVID-19  holding a Green Passport in  Bloomfield Stadium on March 6, 2021. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Israeli rock singer Shalom Hanoch Perform in front people vaccinated against COVID-19 holding a Green Passport in Bloomfield Stadium on March 6, 2021.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Israel’s Green Pass system was first launched in February 2021 as vaccines were just starting to become widely available and as public spaces prepared to reopen after almost a year of closures. However, as the Omicron variant continues to sweep across the population of Israel, many are now arguing that the Green Pass is no longer necessary, or even effective, in the fight to stop the spread of the virus.

The current Green Pass restrictions are set to expire on February 1 and the conversation has turned to what will come next. Will the Green Pass be renewed – either fully or partially – or will it be canceled in its entirety? Will something else be implemented in its place?

Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman MK Gilad Kariv (Labor) has already said on Monday that no further extensions would be granted to the Green Pass without proven epidemiological justification but that similarly, no restrictions would be removed supporting data.

Earlier in January, he had already voiced concern that the Green Pass was being renewed unnecessarily, saying that “the Omicron variant undermines the epidemiological validity of the Green Pass and does not add to it.” However, at that date, he did approve the renewal of the pass, acknowledging that there was still a difference in the infection rate and severity of infections in vaccinated people compared to the unvaccinated.

Now though, he says he has still not received the written epidemiological evidence he asked for, in order to prove that the pass is still doing anything in combating infection rates.

 Herzog hospital team members wearing safety gear as they work in the Coronavirus ward of the Herzog Medical Center in Jerusalem, January 13, 2022.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Herzog hospital team members wearing safety gear as they work in the Coronavirus ward of the Herzog Medical Center in Jerusalem, January 13, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

“I’m warning you eight days before you return to the committee once again with the regulations to renew the Green Pass; it will not be approved by the committee unless there is an epidemiologically based written statement.

“In light of the voices heard among ministers and the cabinet of experts, it may be good for the government to remove the Green Pass for the time being, given the current data.”

Kariv may be right to be cautious regarding whether or not the Green Pass has outlived its usefulness.

WHETHER OR not a vaccine passport is successful in stemming the spread of the virus is still contested, with contradictory results coming out of each study.

For example, in November 2021 researchers from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change in London carried out an analysis based on data showing the spread of the virus in June 2021 to determine the effectiveness of vaccine passes. Their research showed that if vaccine passes had been made compulsory in the UK with no other restrictions, cases and deaths could have been reduced by as much as 30%.

However, Associate Director at the Ada Lovelace Institute Imogen Parker has argued strongly against the use of vaccine passports, citing a festival that took place in Cornwall, England in August 2021 as an example. The event required both vaccine passports and additional testing, and yet it later became known as a “super-spreader event,” with almost 5,000 cases traced back to it. This evidence suggests that even then, before the Omicron variant, vaccine passes were less effective than many had hoped they would be.

Some researchers have concluded that the main benefit of the vaccine pass plan is that it acts as an incentive to encourage people to get vaccinated against the virus. Is this a strong enough reason to keep the current Green Pass system in place?

A peer-reviewed study entitled “The effect of mandatory COVID-19 certificates on vaccine uptake: synthetic-control modeling of six countries” examined whether or not vaccine passes contributed to consistently increased rates of vaccination.

The study found that countries with previously lower-than-average vaccination rates (Israel, France, Italy and Switzerland) experienced a significant uptick in vaccinations 20 days before and 40 days after the introduction of vaccine passes.

However, in countries where the inoculation rates were already above average, such as Germany, the passes did little to encourage or increase the rates of vaccination.

Now, a year after the introduction of the Green Pass, when over six million people in Israel have received their second vaccine, and four million of those have also received a booster shot, it is highly unlikely that anyone who has not yet chosen to receive a vaccine will do so solely to receive a Green Pass.

So if, as Kariv has said, there is no epidemiological evidence that the Green Pass is aiding to stem the spread of the pandemic, and if its one largely acknowledged benefit of acting as an incentive to get vaccinated is no longer proving effective, the question then is what happens next? Should the Green Pass be abolished entirely, or updated to make it more effective?

WHILE ISRAEL still debates what the future of the Green Pass will look like, other countries have already decided.

As of January 27 England will no longer require people to show COVID certification upon entry to venues and events that had required it up until now. The reasoning for this, British Health Secretary Sajid David said, is that there is no longer justification for them as Omicron cases continue to wane across the UK.

While Israel has yet to pass the peak of the Omicron wave, experts suggest that it will be reached within the coming week. Cases will then slowly start to decline, meaning Israel will soon be in a similar position to the UK.

The Republic of Ireland too, has removed the need for proof of vaccination or recovery to be presented at the entrance to entertainment venues, saying that the country had “weathered the Omicron storm.”

However, Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin cautioned the country, saying that the removal of the restrictions could still lead to a rise in infections and that people were still required to be vigilant.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, vaccine passes do not seem to be going anywhere. On January 24 France’s vaccine pass entered into effect, allowing only those who have recently recovered or who are fully vaccinated into public venues. The vaccine pass replaces their more lenient health pass which, up until now, had allowed the unvaccinated to present a negative test as an alternative to a vaccine pass.

“The vaccine pass is a game-changer and will allow normal activities to resume again,” France’s Tourism Minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne told Europe 1 radio.

AUSTRIA HAS opted for an even stricter approach: From February 1 vaccination will be compulsory for the country’s residents over the age of 18. Starting from March 15 those without either a vaccine certificate or proof of exemption could be fined upwards of €600 (NIS 2,156).

While some in Israel’s government would rather see the Green Pass go the way of the British and Irish vaccine passports, others are more cautious, acknowledging, like France and Austria, that the current system is flawed, and must be updated rather than canceled.

On the one hand, Strategic Planning Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Eli Avidar (Yisrael Beytenu) has advocated strongly against refreshing or updating the Green Pass requirements, calling them “draconian,” and saying the laws would be abused if they continued to be updated.

But on the other hand, Construction and Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin has cautioned against this approach, saying that while yes, vaccines are less effective than they once were, they do still protect against serious disease, and so entirely removing the Green Pass requirements would be a mistake.

Similarly, Prof. Ran Balicer, a Health Ministry adviser on coronavirus, has warned that the Green Pass is not effective when it comes to Omicron, as it has been proven that the vaccinated can both be infected and infect others with the variant. Therefore, infection is neither slowed nor stopped by requiring a Green Pass to enter certain spaces.

But this does not mean that he believes that the requirements should become a thing of the past.

Instead, he recommended, the Green Pass should be remodeled but not removed. The requirements should be expanded to include presenting a negative antigen test at the entrance to establishments and events, he suggested.

With the approval of the updated coronavirus law by the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Monday evening, the committee members have ensured that should the green pass laws be renewed they will be done so in a democratic and studies-based justified way. Should they not be renewed, the option will be left open for them to be reestablished again in the future if the need arises.

As it stands, Israel has less than a week to decide what form the future of the Green Pass will take and, at the moment, all options appear to be on the table.