EU outlines vaccine passport plan in time for summer

EU citizens who have been vaccinated against Covid-19 will be able to travel without restrictions throughout the European Union by the summer if a proposal unveiled today gets the green light from the European Parliament and European Council.

Still under fire for the botched roll-out of its vaccination programme, the European Commission has nevertheless moved ahead with a plan to create a digital certificate to facilitate safe free movement inside the European Union during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The certificate will be proof that a person has been vaccinated against Covid-19, received a negative test result or recovered from Covid-19. It will be available, free of charge, in digital or paper format. It will include a QR code to ensure security and authenticity, and the Commission will build a gateway to ensure all certificates can be verified across the EU, and support member states in the technical implementation of certificates.

The certificate will be valid in all EU member states and open for Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway as well as Switzerland – but not the UK.

To be ready before the summer, the proposal needs swift adoption by the European Parliament and the European Council.

In parallel, member states must implement technical standards, agreed in the eHealth network, to ensure the timely implementation of the certificates, their interoperability and full compliance with personal data protection. The aim is to have the technical work and the proposal completed in the coming months.

While individual member states will remain responsible for deciding which public health restrictions can be waived for travelers, they will have to apply such waivers in the same way to all travelers holding a certificate, which have been dubbed “vaccine passports”.

The vaccines that will be certified in the passports will have to be approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). These currently include jabs developed by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, but not Russia’s Sputnik V or China’s Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines.

However, the proposal adds that the guidelines “should not prevent member states from deciding to accept vaccination certificates issued for other Covid-19 vaccines”.

Vaccine passports have faced opposition from some EU member states over concerns they might be discriminatory, although several others have called for them in the hope of restarting their tourist industries before the beginning of the summer season. Two of emerging Europe’s EU member states, Croatia and Bulgaria, rely on tourism for a significant share of GDP, and their economies are unlikely to fully recover without restarting travel.

“The digital certificate offers an EU-wide solution to ensure that EU citizens benefit from a harmonised digital tool to support free movement in the EU,” according to European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová. “This is a good message in support of recovery. Our key objectives are to offer an easy to use, non-discriminatory and secure tool that fully respects data protection. And we continue working towards international convergence with other partners.”

Iceland opens up, Poland locks down

Earlier on March 17, non-EU member Iceland announced that it is opening its borders to visitors who have received the vaccine without the need for testing or quarantine later this week.

Also on March 17, the head of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen threatened to restrict vaccine exports if third countries do not also allow exports in a reciprocal and proportionate way. Mrs von der Leyen says this could apply to countries with higher vaccination rates than those in the EU – an apparent reference to the UK.

“All options are on the table,” she told reporters. “We are in the crisis of the century. I am not ruling out anything for now because we have to make sure that Europeans are vaccinated as soon as possible.” 

The Polish government meanwhile is introducing a three-week partial lockdown to try to slow down an alarming increase in Covid-19 infections.

From March 20, hotels, shopping centres, cultural and sporting facilities will be closed across the country.

Health Minister Adam Niedzielski is also recommending that people work from home where possible.

He said at a press conference that the main cause of the spike in infections was the spread of a variant which originated in southern England. This now accounts for more than half of cases nationwide.

On March 17, Poland recorded its biggest number of new cases since November: more than 25,000.

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