The European Commission’s plans for an EU-wide COVID-19 certificate are a delicate balancing act — and there’s plenty of space to slip up.
The target to have “interoperable” certificates — providing evidence to countries that a person has been vaccinated, tested negative or recovered from the virus — by June was warmly welcomed by the pandemic-battered travel industry on Wednesday.
But it’s uncertain whether the system will be up and running in time for the summer season. Also unknown is which countries will be willing to ease travel restrictions for certificate-holders, given the unresolved debate around just how much protection vaccines confer.
“We are not ready yet on the data, the use, and the tools,” one EU diplomat said. “At the same time, there is convergence in the EU that we will need this type of instrument … we need a common basis by May and June.”
He pointed to a split in the bloc, with northern countries complaining that harmonizing certificates means “constraints,” while southern countries believe the plan isn’t moving fast enough.
“This being [a] co-decision, how can this be done in two months?” he asked.
The Commission, for its part, is pushing the plan as the key to unlocking the bloc after a long near-freeze in travel.
He stressed that “there’s a lot to do” at the national level, and that it’s up to European Parliament to “choose the rhythm at which it wants to advance.”
But there is no Plan B, he warned.
Free to roam
Meanwhile, tourist-reliant countries are eager to see the pass rolled out quickly.
Austria’s government said Wednesday it’ll be taking the first steps to establish a “green pass” in the next few days, starting with a test certificate. That could be up and running as early as April, while proof of immunity, through a vaccination or a recovery from the virus, would follow later — at the latest in June, it said.
“We don’t want to wait for implementation at the European level,” said Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. But he called Vienna’s move “preparatory work” for an EU-wide implementation.
Another booster, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, praised the EU for “moving forward with our proposal.”
“This is a decision that will significantly facilitate the movement of citizens and will help boost tourism and the economies that rely heavily on it,” added Mitsotakis, who first championed the idea of a travel pass.
A Commission official, however, cautioned that while the proposal is “fundamentally about facilitating free movement,” the green certificate doesn’t constitute a “second passport.”
“This is about proof of vaccination,” he said. “We are certainly not regulating here how countries in the EU are managing their borders.”
That means the proposal sidesteps a separate, much thornier debate: Whether the vaccination certificate should be used to drop travel restrictions.
“We have nothing against vaccinations being registered somewhere, but the debate about [the certificate’s] use has yet to be held,” an EU diplomat said.
Despite the Commission’s efforts to broaden the green certificate’s scope to include recent tests and possible recoveries from the virus, concerns remain that it could discriminate against the majority of EU citizens who are currently unable to get a vaccine.
But other countries chafe against those additions, saying that adding extra items like tests and recoveries could slow the roll out.
While including that information would boost the number of people who could use the passes, it would also “increase the complexity of the system,” according to another EU diplomat. “The inclusion of additional data in the certificate should take place when it will not adversely affect the pace of system development.”
The known unknowns
Some countries are also holding out for more scientific data on the risk that vaccinated travelers could still carry and transmit the virus.
These worries have some basis, which is why the scientific debate around just how much immunity previous infections and vaccines grant, and to what extent they block virus transmission, continues.
“If vaccination certification is going to be required, then it is best that this is properly regulated,” said Peter English, former editor of Vaccines in Practice Magazine. This includes having all the right information, like the dates and brands of the vaccine, or in case of the previously infections, positive test results.
Andrea Ammon, director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, made that point this week: It’s still too early to be giving extra rights to those with vaccinations because there’s too little information on how long immunity lasts,
Frank Ulrich Montgomery, president of the Standing Committee of European Doctors, which represents national medical associations across Europe, agreed.
“The time is not yet ripe for a clear statement on immunity as some scientific questions relating to … risk of transmission even after vaccination are not yet resolved,” he said.
This lack of information about immunity isn’t lost on member countries.
“Today, we don’t have the certainty that if you’ve had COVID-19 you are totally immune,” said one EU diplomat representing a West European country.
There’s always the worry that asymptomatic transmission could occur for those who had already received a shot, he noted, or else they could still be exposed to variants. “The scientific evidence is not there,” he said.
A Commission official countered that the proposal has “built-in flexibility” and that it allows for corrections as more information about the extent and length of immunity arrives.
“The data is coming in on a continuous basis, which we are looking at together with the experts,” he said, adding that the Commission could “adjust the use of such certificates in the future based on that data.”
Coordination at EU level “is welcome,” said MEP Tilly Metz, health coordinator for the Greens. The fact that “vaccination, testing and recovery are on equal footing” is a positive, she added. But the proposal skirts over the questions about “the capacity of vaccines to provide sterile immunization and length of effective protection provided by the vaccines,” she warned.
Meanwhile, the aviation sector, which has pushed for greater co-operation across the EU throughout the pandemic, wants urgent approval and implementation from the Parliament, and national governments.
The industry points to a recent study showing that 54 percent of Europeans plan to book a holiday before July, calling this an example of the “pent-up” demand for travel.
Their big fear is that that opportunity could be lost.Want more analysis from POLITICO? POLITICO Pro is our premium intelligence service for professionals. From financial services to trade, technology, cybersecurity and more, Pro delivers real time intelligence, deep insight and breaking scoops you need to keep one step ahead. Email email@example.com to request a complimentary trial.
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