The European Commission set a nine-month expiry period for Covid-19 certificates for travel purposes on Tuesday, meaning that people will need to get a booster shot to keep their vaccination status valid.
The move is an attempt to ensure consistent rules across the European Union and came after some member states began implementing their own domestic validity periods, which differed from country to country, threatening confusion.
Several countries, including Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Greece, are currently requiring fully vaccinated travellers from other EU countries to also show a negative Covid-19 test upon arrival.
EU governments are racing to inoculate holdout pockets of unvaccinated people and increase the take-up of boosters as the rapidly spreading Omicron variant of Covid-19 sweeps the continent, with the number of people infected doubling every few days.
The nine-month period was chosen as booster doses are recommended within six months of the completion of the first round of vaccination, with an additional three months provided to ensure there are sufficient supplies and to allow national vaccination campaigns to keep up.
“The strength and success of this invaluable tool for citizens and business lies in its coherent use across the EU,” said European commissioner for health Stella Kyriakides. “What is needed now is to ensure that booster campaigns proceed as quickly as possible, that as many citizens are protected by an additional dose and that our certificates remain a key tool for travel and protection of public health.”
Justice commissioner Didier Reynders said that one EU-wide rule on validity periods for travel was necessary to avoid the lack of coordination that disrupted movement within the bloc earlier in the pandemic, and to keep the Covid certificate a “success story”.
“Unilateral measures in the member states would bring us back to the fragmentation and uncertainties we have seen last spring,” Mr Reynders said. “The acceptance period of nine months for vaccination certificates will give citizens and businesses the certainty they need when planning their travels with confidence.”
In a briefing to journalists, European Medicines Agency chief Emer Cooke warned that "the epidemiological situation remains extremely worrying across Europe."
She admitted that she had expected the pandemic would have ended by now. “It’s exactly one year since the approval of the first Covid-19 vaccine,”she recalled. “When I made this announcement last year, I really didn’t expect that one year on we’d still be in a pandemic.”
Omicron has become the dominant variant in a growing number of European countries since it was first detected in November. Ms Cooke said that more data is needed to know if vaccines will need to be updated to target the variant, but that the EMA is “prepared” to regulate the next generation of drugs if needed.
The regulator approved a fifth Covid-19 vaccine, Novavax, this week. The vaccine is easy to store and transport as it can be kept at normal fridge temperatures, raising hopes that it will help to plug a deep gap in vaccine provision between richer and poorer countries. It is also based on a more traditional vaccine technology than the more novel mRNA vaccines, which some political leaders hope will help it to win over people who have been hesitant to be vaccinated.
Ms Cooke said the range of vaccines and medicines now available to tackle Covid-19 would help Europe to cope with the expected wave of infections. “With five vaccines and six treatments we are in a stronger position than last year,” Ms Cooke said. “We have many more tools at our disposal.”