Commission urges members states to start booster vaccination to ensure safe travel in the EU

Commission urges members states to start booster vaccination to ensure safe travel in the EU
Zaventem airport, Belgium

The European Commission announced today a proposal for an update of the rules on coordination of safe and free movement in the EU in response to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic.

The proposal follows the rapid risk assessment yesterday by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), in conjunction with the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Both agencies warned about the risk of a very high COVID-19 burden this Winter unless public health measures are applied urgently.

“Countries should urgently consider a booster dose for those 40 years and over and could also consider a booster dose for all adults 18 years and older at least 6 months after completing their primary series. This is to increase protection against infection due to waning immunity which could potentially reduce the transmission in the population and prevent additional hospitalisations and deaths.”

However, the EU agencies did not recommend the Commission how to implement new travel rules during the coming months.

According to the Commission, the EU Digital COVID Certificate has been rolled out successfully, with more than 650 million certificates issued to date. At the same time, the epidemiological situation in the EU continues to develop with some member states taking additional public health measures, including administering booster vaccines.

Taking into account all those factors, the Commission is proposing a stronger focus on a ‘person-based' approach to travel measures and a standard acceptance period for vaccination certificates of 9 months since the primary vaccination series (one or two doses depending on vaccine).

The 9-month period takes into account ECDC guidance on the administration of booster doses as of 6 months, and provides for an additional period of 3 months to ensure that national vaccination campaigns can adjust and citizens can have access to boosters.

The Commission is also proposing updates to the EU traffic light map, as well as a simplified ‘emergency brake' procedure, and an update of the rules on external travel to the EU .

A today’s press conference (25 November), Didier Reynders, Commissioner for Justice, prioritized the need to ensure free moving in the EU in the safest possible way, by giving the member states enough time to prepare for the booster vaccination. According to ECDC, however, member states are already preparing for booster vaccination and have put a logistical infrastructure in place.

“Our main objective is avoid diverging measures throughout the EU,” the Commissioner said. “This also applies to the question of boosters, which will be essential to fight the virus. Among other measures, we propose today that the Council agrees on a standard validity period for vaccination certificates issued following the primary series.”

A key update is the new rules is that a person who has a valid EU Digital COVID Certificate should in principle not be subject to additional restrictions, such as tests or quarantine, regardless of their place of departure in the EU. Persons without an EU Digital COVID Certificate could be required to undergo a test carried out prior to or after arrival.

In the context of travel, member states should not refuse a vaccination certificate that has been issued less than 9 months since the administration of the last dose of the primary vaccination. In fact, the impact of the primary vaccination is waning after 6 month or even before.

Member states should immediately take all necessary steps to ensure access to vaccination for those population groups whose previously issued vaccination certificates approach the 9-month limit. As for the booster shot, it is not possible to determine the validity period but it can be expected that protection from booster vaccinations may last longer than that resulting from the primary vaccination series.

Travel to and from ‘dark red' areas should be discouraged, given the high number of new infections there, and persons who are neither vaccinated nor have recovered from the virus should be required to undergo a pre-departure test and quarantine after arrival (with special rules for essential travellers and children under 12 years old).

Member states can also deny entry of EU citizens that have been vaccinated with vaccines that have not yet been approved by EMA. They can also require that those entering the country will have to comply with the national rules on access to buses, trains, restaurants, shops and other places.

Commissioner Reynders hopes that that Council will adopt the new rules by the end of December so that they can enter into force on 10 January 2022 to allow for sufficient time for the coordinated approach to be implemented. Is that not too late in view of ECDC’s warning?

“We aren’t so far from December,” he replied and referred to the Commission decision last week to include booster vaccination in the COVID certificates. “We’ll insist that the member states will organise booster vaccination as soon as possible for all citizens.  There is no contradiction in that. Member states need three months to develop a national strategy in line with the recommendation.”

For those coming from dark red countries, or where there are special concerns, member states can apply other measures (“emergency brake” procedure) but it would be important for them to notify the measures to the Commission and explain them. The Commission will have a role in verifying that they proportionate and non-discriminatory.

The Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, wrote on Wednesday to Commission President von der Leyen and proposed that the third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine should be considered as a condition of safe travel within the EU for citizens over the 60 years old. This should be reflected in the COVID certificate.

The latter has already been implemented by the Commission by a delegated act last week. A Greek diplomat told The Brussels Times that the Commission’s proposal is moving in the right direction. The aim of the Prime Minister’s proposal was to urge for a coordinated approach which could be agreed by consensus.

“We must keep up the immunity of people who are vaccinated,” the Commission President said in a statement today. “The EU agencies recommend now booster doses for all adults. Boosters give us an even higher level of protection than the original vaccination. They will prevent many hospitalisations and deaths. Finally, we need to convince more people to get vaccinated.”

Travel from third countries into the EU

Non-essential travel from third countries regardless of individual vaccination status is currently permitted from just over 20 countries with a good epidemiological situation. Most travellers into the EU are from other countries.

The Commission announced today simplified rules for travellers from third countries. Member states should reopen systematically as of 10 January 2022 to those vaccinated with vaccines having completed the WHO emergency use listing process, in addition to reopening to those vaccinated with EU-approved vaccines as is the case today.

As an essential safeguard, proof of a negative PCR test will always be required for all travellers who have been vaccinated with a WHO approved vaccine which is not approved by EMA and for recovered travellers.

All vaccinated travellers should have either completed their primary vaccination series less than 9 months ago or received an additional booster dose. This would also apply as of 10 January 2022. In this regard, the rules are similar to those for travellers inside the EU, Commissioner Ylva Johansson, responsible for Home Affairs, explained.

As of March 2022, the ever changing list is proposed to be abolished and travel into the EU will be fully dependent on the status of the traveller, and not on the country of departure: Member states should from that date allow in only vaccinated, recovered or essential travellers. The intention is to make travel easier and more predictable for travellers from third countries.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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