England’s COVID Pass system went offline for hours on Wednesday, causing British travelers to remain stranded at airports. Some passengers couldn’t board their flights, while others suffered delays as both the National Health Service (NHS) website and app experienced issues.
Delays and missed flights
An NHS system outage lasting approximately four hours left many British travelers unable to access their vaccination records and present their COVID Pass to the airlines. Prior to letting passengers board, most airlines in the UK require proof of vaccination in printed or digital form. But those without a paper copy were left in limbo as the NHS smartphone app kept throwing up errors.
Journalist Caroline Frost, who is vaccinated, is one of the many passengers who had a hard time getting by at the airport:
Waiting to fly at Heathrow and the NHS app has crashed with all the a COVID vaccination proof available. Currently not allowed to fly. Going to be an interesting afternoon at Heathrow.
— Caroline Frost (@FrostReporter) October 13, 2021
Although the NHS released a statement about “issues with accessing the COVID Pass,” it didn’t specify the exact cause of the outage.
There are currently issues with accessing the Covid Pass on the NHS App and website. We are investigating the issue and will update as soon as we can.
— NHS Digital (@NHSDigital) October 13, 2021
This isn’t the first time the UK government’s digital COVID vaccine passports have experienced problems. Earlier this month, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon admitted that there were temporary issues with the app, saying, “In particular, many found that the app was unable to locate their vaccination record from the information that they had provided.”
The problem was not with the app itself but rather the centralized NHS systems that it links to, explained Sturgeon. “Essentially, the high level of demand after the launch of the app—combined with an error in one part of the NHS system—meant that information wasn’t being sent quickly enough from the NHS system to the app. This also, for a period, caused problems for those requesting paper copies of vaccination certificates or seeking to download a PDF.”
In July, Northern Ireland’s vaccine passport service experienced a data leak, exposing users’ personal information and forcing Northern Ireland’s Department of Health to take the service offline temporarily.
While digital vaccine passports offer convenience, they aren’t immune to network outages, data leaks, and cyberattacks—all impediments that need attention as the use of digital vaccine passports increases. Carrying a paper copy of your vaccination proof while traveling is a good idea—at the very least, it may save you time in the case of outages.