Irish and international members of the European Parliament have been deluged by thousands of emails organised by anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown activists in a bid to stop the introduction of vaccine certificates intended to ease the resumption of travel in the European Union.
The proposed pan-EU digital certificates would show if people have been vaccinated, tested negative or recovered from Covid-19.
Many of the emails are copies of a template text shared online by a network of activists that casts doubt on the safety and efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines and describes the certificate as “the same as imposing travel papers on Jews by the Nazi’s”.
MEPs and their staff described the emails as highly unusual because of their volume, their focus on a procedural vote that would usually not attract much interest and their grounding in misinformation about vaccines and the Covid-19 pandemic.
"It is extremely unusual to have 2-3,000 emails coming in overnight and over the course of a day and a half. I think you really have to ask questions about the algorithms and so on behind it and the ability to generate this," said Fine Gael's Frances Fitzgerald, who sits on a disinformation committee in the parliament.
The template letter to MEPs and a list of their email addresses began to go viral on Facebook in Ireland after they were posted by barrister Tracey O'Mahony and shared by Prof Dolores Cahill, formerly of the Irish Freedom Party, both of whom made speeches at an anti-lockdown event in Dublin on St Patrick's Day.
This followed a similar call to email all EU MEPs and the sharing of a different template letter by Children's Health Defense, an anti-vaccination group in the United States founded in 2015 by Robert F Kennedy jnr, a nephew of the late US president John F Kennedy and a notorious anti-vaccination campaigner.
The group expanded into Europe last summer when Mr Kennedy was among the speakers at a mass rally of anti-lockdown protesters and conspiracy theorists in Berlin, and it now campaigns on EU issues in English, German, French and Italian. MEPs from across the EU described their inboxes being flooded with similar emails to an extent that disrupted their ability to work.
‘Breach of rights’
"Some of the emails are genuine, others are obviously coming from a centralised distribution system. There's quite a strong lobby coming from outside the European Union itself," said Fianna Fáil's Billy Kelleher.
"There's a strong anti-vax element to it . . . Some people have views that it's a breach of fundamental rights in terms of transport and travel, others have views that vaccination hasn't proved to be successful and it's all part of a conspiratorial agenda," he added. "Some of them are quite threatening. They go to strange, appalling comparisons between Jewish people and Germany in the '30s having to wear the star, it really is bordering on the ugly."
MEPs vote on Thursday on whether to speed up procedure to allow for debates to be held earlier on a proposal for pan-EU digital certificates that would show if people have been vaccinated, tested negative or recovered from Covid-19.
There is pressure to set up the digital system in time for summer, particularly from a group of tourism-dependent states led by Greece, which hopes it could help ease international travel by allowing some people to skip quarantine or testing requirements.
In Israel, a vaccine certificate system has been introduced to allow people who have received jabs exclusive access to gyms, hotels, theatres and concerts. But the idea is controversial in Europe and opposed as discriminatory by several member states, so the proposed EU version of the scheme would also allow people to demonstrate that they have tested negative or have antibodies as they have recovered from Covid-19, as an alternative to vaccination.
It would be up to individual member states to decide whether to allow such people to skip requirements such as quarantine or testing obligations for travellers, and the idea of using the certificates domestically is controversial.
MEPs have said it is not possible to respond to all the emails they have received, but Mr Kelleher said he was writing back to anyone who contacted him from his constituency of Ireland South, telling them that the certificate should only be used for “international travel purposes”.
“I fully respect your freedom to choose not to be vaccinated and ultimately your freedom to choose to quarantine upon arrival in a country if local rules require,” his response reads.