EU divided on Covid-19 'vaccination passports' for travel

EU divided on Covid-19 'vaccination passports' for travel
Credit: Belga

As a growing number of Covid-19 vaccines are being approved and vaccination campaigns are taking off, discussions are turning towards the possible introduction of a "vaccination passport" allowing vaccinated people to travel freely.

On 15 January, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated that she supported the idea of common vaccination certificates, calling for agreements at the European level, as European Council President Charles Michel warned that it should not be introduced too soon.

With no clear European consensus, the idea is now proving polarizing - with countries whose economy heavily relies on tourism pleading in favour, while others warn it would be discriminatory.

Here's where they stand: 

In favour: Greece, Spain, Italy

The initial proposal for a European "vaccination certificate" to facilitate travel within the EU was submitted in January, by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Prime Minister of Greece.

On Monday, Greece also concluded an agreement with Israel - which has the highest vaccination rate - to allow their respective citizens to travel between the two countries without restrictions, provided they have been vaccinated.

Spain has also pronounced itself in favour of such a passport, with Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya calling it "a very important element to guarantee the return to mobility in complete safety."

In Italy, too, the Extraordinary Commissioner for managing the health crisis, Domenico Arcuri, stated that such a passport was "not a bad idea" to "allow the return to normal activities as quickly as possible."

Already launched: Sweden, Denmark, Iceland and Estonia

Last week, both Denmark and Sweden announced plans to roll out digital vaccine certificates for travel, aiming to be able to restart tourism in the summer. They could also be used to access sporting or cultural events, and even restaurants in Denmark.

Iceland - which is not part of the EU but belongs to the Schengen area - started issuing these digital documents at the end of January, aiming to facilitate movement between countries.

Travellers presenting such a certificate at the Icelandic border are exempt from official border restrictions, and are not obliged to undergo a Covid-19 test.

In Estonia, a pilot project has been launched, exempting passengers from quarantine on arrival if they can show proof of vaccination, PCR or serological testing.

A local company, Guardtime, started the project, and the country is working with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to develop it internationally. In principle, the WHO supports vaccine certificates, but it is critical of the idea of them being used as a requisite for travel.

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Against: Belgium, France, Germany, Poland

In France, the government has expressed reservations on vaccine certificates being used as a sign of safety, as not everyone has access to the vaccine yet, according to French Health Minister Olivier Veran.

"Additionally, we do not know if they prevent transmission," he said in January, adding that the debate should only be held "in a few months' time."

In Germany, the authorities have already stated that they are opposed to lifting coronavirus restrictions for the vaccinated population only, but they are not ruling out the possibility of such certificates in the private sector.

"If a restaurant owner wants to make an offer only intended for vaccinated people, it will be difficult to prohibit it in the current legal situation," German Minister of Justice Christine Lambrecht said.

In Belgium, Foreign Affairs Minister and Deputy PM Sophie Wilmès stated that such a vaccine passport “cannot lead to discrimination between European citizens if there is no universal access to vaccines.”

She also stressed that the certificate, if adopted, should not restrict people’s individual freedoms or cross-border mobility.

Poland is not considering a "vaccine passport" for the moment, but it has launched a smartphone app showing the status of those who are vaccinated, allowing them to skip quarantine on arrival when entering the country.

Some vaccines are already mandatory for travel

One of the most-raised arguments in favour of a Covid-19 vaccine passport for travel is that some vaccinations are currently already mandatory before travelling to certain countries or areas.

In many countries, being vaccinated against yellow fever is compulsory to enter the territory, either for all travellers (like in French Guiana), or for those coming from certain countries where the disease is often found.

In those cases, vaccination centres issue a vaccination record, officially called an "International Certificate of Vaccination or Prophylaxis," which is a yellow booklet that is recognised by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Airlines' opinions

The Australian airline Qantas first mentioned in November the "need" for international travellers to be vaccinated against Covid-19 to board, and other companies have made similar comments since, pointing out that this certificate would prevent quarantine measures upon entering a country.

Gulf airlines, Emirates and Etihad, will soon be testing the Travel Pass designed by the International Air Transport Association ("IATA Travel Pass"), an app that will allow passengers to "verify that their pre-trip test and/or their vaccination meets the requirements of their destination."

Additionally, IATA has urged the EU to adopt the digital Covid-19 vaccination certificate, as it would allow vaccinated people to travel freely in all Member States, calling it "a fundamental key to safely reopening borders and stimulating economic recovery."

The WHO is against such a passport 'for the moment'

In January, the WHO said it was opposed - "for the time being" - to the introduction of Covid-19 vaccination certificates as a condition for travel, while supporting the principle to monitor campaigns in countries.

"There are still too many fundamental unknowns in terms of the effectiveness of vaccines in reducing transmission, and vaccines are still only available in limited quantities," the committee said in its recommendations, adding that proof of vaccination should not exempt from other health precautionary measures.

So far, at least 147.20 million vaccines were administered, according to the latest data available (on 9 February), about two months after the launch of the first mass vaccination campaigns. In the EU, over 17.3 million doses have been administered on 10 February, according to the EU vaccine tracker.

Maïthé Chini

The Brussels Times

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