Getting travellers' health and vaccination information recognised across countries is a key step for more travel to resume, in addition to building trust across jurisdictions and with citizens, panellists at an international forum said yesterday.
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said health certification would not only have to include vaccination and immunity status, but must also be verifiable and interoperable.
"Certainly at the technical level we can spend a lot of time talking about blockchains and open source (software), but the key point here is interoperability and trust between jurisdictions," he said on the second day of the World Economic Forum's (WEF) Global Technology Governance Summit.
Until that is achieved, together with a sufficient level of herd immunity globally, the way the world used to travel will not come back, said Dr Balakrishnan, who is also Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative. He believes it will take another three years or so for international travel to get back to pre-Covid-19 levels. "If you think about 9/11 in 2001, and what that incident did to the way we travel in terms of security checks, I think Covid-19 has now introduced a new dimension to the way we all travel - we all do nose swabs, breathalyser (tests) and all kinds of things in the years to come."
The virtual summit hosted by Japan has gathered more than 2,000 leaders from government, business and civil society to discuss key issues such as ethical artificial intelligence, blockchain and data privacy over three days.
The discussions will be a key feature of talks when the WEF meets in Singapore in August.
Another panellist at the session, titled Rebuilding the Trust to Travel, was Dr Nobuhiro Endo, chairman of the board of Japanese firm NEC Corporation. He said that in order for digital health passport systems to communicate, it was necessary to build an "interoperability layer" on top of the platform.
Countries have different policies on Covid-19, such as the period of self-isolation and how and when a vaccination or a test is taken, he said. "We need to build links of trust and mechanisms to confirm and approve the data to overcome differences among regions."
In terms of using tech to promote tourism, South Africa's Minister of Tourism Mmamoloko Tryphosa Kubayi-Ngubane spoke of digitising the many forms that travellers have to complete, as well as looking into how virtual site visits of attractions can entice more tourists to visit when travel resumes.
Asked by moderator Anna Stewart, a reporter at CNN, when travel can be expected to return to 2019 or pre-Covid-19 levels, Dr Balakrishnan said he did not expect this to happen until about 2024.
The virus is now endemic, and how lethal and contagious its variants are is still uncertain, he said, adding that the distribution of vaccines will also take time to catch up.
The minister was also asked about data privacy concerns as Singapore rolled out its contact tracing technology. Dr Balakrishnan raised the example of how, earlier this year, Parliament had to amend the law such that personal contact tracing data can be used in police investigations of only certain crimes.
The episode illustrated the need for trust, openness, explanation and sufficient transparency so that privacy is protected, he said.
"The real world works this way - privacy is actually an analogue, rather than a simple binary yes/no.
"We all need to be clear of the trade-offs. Authorities and governments need to be accountable, explain, and change policies and legislation if need be."