EU to develop Covid-19 vaccine ‘pass’ amid divisions over issue

Digital certificate would show vaccine status or test result but not all countries are keen

 European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen: “The digital green pass should facilitate Europeans’ lives. The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad.” Photograph: Johanna Geron

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen: “The digital green pass should facilitate Europeans’ lives. The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad.” Photograph: Johanna Geron

 

The European Commission is to propose a “digital green pass” that would facilitate travel within the bloc by allowing people to demonstrate they have been vaccinated or have tested negative for Covid-19.

The issue has divided member states, with strong tourism economies such as Greece advocating “vaccine passports” but other countries cautioning the measure would be discriminatory.

In a bid to reach a compromise, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced on Monday that the commission would put forward a proposal for a “digital green pass” that would also accommodate people who have been unable to receive a vaccine yet.

The pass would allow a traveller to show either that they have been vaccinated, that they have tested negative for Covid-19 or that they have recovered from the disease.

“The digital green pass should facilitate Europeans’ lives,” Dr von der Leyen said. “The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad – for work or tourism.”

Some EU leaders have warned it is premature to begin discussing the issue while infection rates are still high, non-essential travel strongly discouraged and vaccines still not widely available.

Spain and UK

But Spain has said in the absence of an EU agreement on the issue, it may forge ahead with its own system to allow vaccinated people from outside the EU to enter the country.

“Right now we have discussions with our colleagues in the UK,” Spain’s tourism minister Fernando Valdés told Bloomberg TV. “For us, the British market is our main market. But obviously since we are a member of the European Union, the solutions have first to be part of the discussions in the EU.

“And obviously if that cannot be reached, we will be thinking of other corridors like green corridors with third countries that can help us restart tourism flows.”

There is broad support across the bloc for standardised digital medical certificates that could be used as proof of vaccination.

However, the policy choices over whether to treat vaccinated people differently, such as by allowing them to skip quarantine or testing requirements, is ultimately up to each national government to decide and not all countries are keen on the idea.

Belgium’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister Sophie Wilmès criticised Dr von der Leyen’s description of the system as a “pass”, saying that this strayed beyond the idea of a mere certificate.

Vaccination vs movement

“The idea of a standardised European system that allows each individual to gather pieces of information about one’s vaccination, Covid tests, etc, on a single digital document [certificate] is a good one,” Ms Wilmès said.

“However, in Mrs von der Leyen’s proposal, the notion of a ‘pass’ is confusing in relation to the objective that this certificate should pursue. For Belgium, there is no question of linking vaccination to the freedom of movement around Europe. Respect for the principle of non-discrimination is more fundamental than ever since vaccination is not compulsory and access to the vaccine is not yet generalised.”

Concerns about new Covid-19 variants have prompted fresh travel restrictions around Europe, particularly on the borders of Germany.

Ireland’s Minister for Tourism, Catherine Martin, said on Monday there was “cautious optimism as the rollout of vaccinations gathers pace” but that “mass tourism may not be on the horizon in the near future”.

Overall, 8 per cent of adults in the EU have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine so far, according to the European Commission, which has urged member states to speed up their vaccination campaigns as some countries have backlogs of doses and deliveries are set to accelerate.