It is not beyond the realms of reality that within the next few months, should you be so lucky to saunter out into the brave new post-covid world, you will meet with a segregated society divided between the vaccinated and the not-vaccinated. That is, if Commission President von der Leyen’s comments hold true.
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Speaking at a virtual press conference following day one of the European Council summit this week, she said that ‘three months’ would be required for the technical development of a system for issuing so-called ‘Vaccine Passports,’ that could be used for gradually lifting restrictions and helping the bloc’s tourism industries get back on their feet. These certificates will be issued to those who have received an approved coronavirus jab or a negative PCR test.
But EU member states themselves are far from united on this topic. While economies that rely heavily on the tourism industry including Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Bulgaria, and Italy are some of the biggest supporters of the plans to facilitate cross-border travel through the provision of such ‘vaccine passports,’ there is a certain reticence from France and Germany in particular.
And the voice of calm reason of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has once again been resigned to the footnotes of this saga. The WHO recently cautioned over the use of just a certification scheme for lifting travel restrictions, noting that there are ‘critical unknowns’ with regards to the efficacy of various vaccinations in reducing transmissions.
Notwithstanding the lack of current data to support the desires of the tourism-famished nations of Europe, there are also the political ramifications of affording liberties to certain segments of society and not others.
French Health Minister Olivier Veran has highlighted the fact that “not everyone has access to vaccines,” and indeed, it is not farfetched to say that those isolated across Europe’s rural corners could find themselves at a disadvantage in terms of access to vaccinations. France is in no mood to frustrate these communities: President Macron has an eye on next year’s general election, and he doesn’t want another backlash from the Gilet Jaunes, pocketed across the French countryside. Such would only play into the hands of Marine Le Pen.
And along this axis, following the meeting on Thursday evening between EU heads of state, Macron warned that the reopening of certain services across France, should not come under the condition that these premises would only be accessible to the vaccinated.
“If we manage to reopen certain places, we cannot condition their access to vaccination, even though we would not even have opened vaccination to the youngest,” he said.
This is a position shared for now by Germany, despite there being the admission that “it would be difficult to forbid” restaurants and other businesses from adopting their own rules with regards to who they open their doors up to, according to Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht.
For her part, Chancellor Merkel says that more data is required on the efficacy of the vaccinations before any commitment is made to making services available only to the vaccinated.
The difference in opinion across the EU on this debate encapsulates the challenge at the heart of the current coronavirus context: under emergency scenarios as these, to how much of an extent should public health be prioritised over the state of the economy?
It was the failure to adopt a coherent position on this issue that so burdened the UK’s response to pandemic’s early days, when we saw Prime Minister Boris Johnson, so forthrightly a proponent of liberalist ideology, utterly reluctant to impose state-issued restrictions over the public’s everyday freedoms. A late lockdown response was no doubt one of the factors that made the UK’s case numbers shoot sky-high.
In a similar spirt, it struck me as wildly haphazard for Johnson this week to announce a provisional timetable for lifting restrictions – the date of ‘June 21’ splashed over the tabloid front pages, appealing to a potentially false sense of hope in the collective consciousness of the public, many of whom have subliminally internalised the date as they day when the coronavirus will cease to be.
For the EU, the issue is much more complex, with market economies having divergent seasonal needs that cannot simply be disregarded. But the lifting of restrictions through the issuing of Vaccine Passports is definitely within our sights. Macron will likely be won around.
That being said, who are we to discount the advice of the WHO – politically neutral and indifferent to the desperate demands of market economies as it is. Ultimately, it is their counsel that will really result in the highest objective of them all: the preservation of human life, against all costs.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.