The European Union is to work towards developing digital medical certificates that would allow people's vaccination status to be recognised across the continent, as southern states led by Greece stake their hopes on the measure as a way to allow summer tourism.
Such a system would take roughly three months to develop, but member states can already introduce digital certificates at a national level designed to collect the same data so that countries can ultimately be linked up, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen told reporters.
The measure has been pushed by Mediterranean countries that are keen to facilitate tourism this summer to shore up their economies.
But many northern states are hesitant, deeming it premature to begin such work while vaccines are still not widely available and with non-essential travel strongly discouraged across the bloc. There are also concerns that treating people differently depending on their vaccination status could be discriminatory.
Nevertheless, supporters of the idea including Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis have emphasised that unless governments develop such a system, private companies will begin offering one instead.
Airlines have called for it, and tech companies including Google have offered to work with the World Health Organisation on development.
Dr von der Leyen said there were “still a number of open questions” on the issue. “The first one is what these certificates will be used for,” she said, adding “it’s still unclear whether you can transmit the disease even if you are vaccinated”.
It would be up to each national government to decide whether vaccinated people could be treated differently, such as being allowed to skip travel quarantine or tests that would be mandatory for others.
The European Commission has already issued guidance to member states on what data a medical certificate should include, but additional work is needed with international partners including the WHO on the details, leaders said.
The prospect remains a distant one for now, as the EU member states have agreed that non-essential travel must be restricted, and tough measures kept in place to curb the spread of Covid-19, particularly the new variants.
Several EU countries including Germany have introduced tough border restrictions in a bid to prevent infections spreading from neighbouring countries where case numbers are higher, raising concerns about disruption to trade within the single market.
The more infectious variant that first arose in Britain has now spread across the EU, and the South African and Brazilian strains are present in a growing number of member states, raising fears that mutations could damage the effectiveness of the vaccination rollout.
The WHO has urged European countries to keep cases as low as possible to reduce the risk of dangerous new variants emerging.
The 27 national leaders issued a joint declaration following a video conference to discuss the pandemic on Thursday evening, in which they declared they would “uphold tight restrictions while stepping up efforts to accelerate the provision of vaccines”.
The head of German pharmaceutical company CureVac, Franz-Werner Haas, told MEPs on Thursday that his company's vaccine had proved effective against the UK and South African variants in preliminary trials. It should receive approval for use from the European Medicines Agency by May or June, he suggested.
This would increase the vaccine doses available for Ireland by the summer, as the EU has ordered 405 million doses from CureVac and Ireland is entitled to roughly 4.5 million of them.
So far, 50 million doses of vaccines have been delivered to member states and roughly 8 per cent of the adult population in the bloc have received a dose, Dr von der Leyen said.
“We need to urgently accelerate the authorisation, production and distribution of vaccines, as well as vaccination,” she said.