Europe moves closer to adopting COVID vaccine passports. Here’s who would qualify

May 21, 2021, 12:40 PM UTC

Senior European Union officials on Thursday agreed in principle on a set of rules enabling its population to travel freely once again throughout all 27 member states this summer.

Still subject to final approval by the European Parliament, it paves the way for the introduction of a Digital COVID Certificate for the nearly 450 million inhabitants of the bloc. 

All individuals who have recovered from the virus, plus those who’ve tested negative or have been vaccinated qualify to apply for this fast-track travel authorization. It will not, however, bar or otherwise discriminate against those who have not rolled up their sleeves to get the jab. For the un-vaccinated, their right to move within the EU is still intact, but they’d have to adhere to local quarantine orders.

“European citizens are looking forward to travelling again, and today’s agreement means they will be able to do so safely very soon,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a statement.

The certificate does not apply to non-EU citizens who live outside the bloc. According to Bloomberg, plans are in the works “for a ‘white list’ of non-EU countries with low infection rates, from which travelers will be exempt from the vaccination requirement.” It’s unclear though when member states would green-light that, leaving Americans and Britons in limbo despite both countries off to a better start in vaccinating their citizens.

Tearing down borders

The pandemic has not only been a public health crisis that cost over 700,000 lives, it has also contributed to the political fragmentation of the bloc. 

During the worst periods of the outbreak, most countries threw up borders to neighbors in an attempt to protect their citizens. This temporarily unwound the Schengen accord that for many was among the most tangible successes brought by European integration.

These emerging centripetal forces couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time, with the U.K. hailing its departure from the EU as a fundamental reason behind its successful vaccination rollout. 

Facilitating cross-border travel would help alleviate the pressure on Europe’s battered tourism industry. Thus far, the lack of any recognized standard caused difficulties for people when traveling within the EU, and officials said there were even received reports of fraudulent or forged documents.

With tourism contributing a disproportionately high share of gross domestic product—nearly $2 trillion in a good year—versus other economies, the new digital certificate could help power a rebound in activity after the EU officially entered a double-dip recession in the first quarter.

Now that the vaccine rollout is also finally gathering steam, forecasters have taken a more bullish view of Europe.

“Reopening is looking slightly better and faster than we expected, which brings growth forward,” wrote equities analysts at Bank of America, after hiking its euro area GDP estimate on Friday to 3.7% for this year, and next. Previously it had anticipated a rate of 3.3% and 3.5%, respectively.

Who’s eligible?

The new Digital COVID Certificate, which will be free of charge, will be accepted across all 27 member states plus Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. 

Any EU national can apply for a certificate, which can also be printed on paper upon request. Foreigners with residency status member states are also entitled to receive one. 

It works with the help of a QR code issued by a recognized health authority such as a hospital or test center, that embeds a digital signature to protect it against falsification. When the certificate is checked, the QR code is scanned and the signature verified.

Information stored will include a person’s name, date of birth, the date the certificate was issued, as well as by whom. It is designed to ensure data privacy for the individual.

For health authorities, it will include aspects such as the date, type and result of a test administered, or in the case of a vaccination, the number of doses and which specific authorized vaccine was taken.

The EU Gateway, the IT system that then verifies the certificates across borders, has been successfully piloted over the past two weeks, and is expected to go live as of next month.  

The goal is to then have the regulation in force on July 1st, in time for the key summer holiday season. The creation of the EU Gateway and digital certificate should not lead to the re-imposition of inner-European border checks, however. 

Officials also stressed that the system is temporary in nature and will be suspended once the World Health Organization declares an end to the emergency.

Importantly, citizens that do not qualify for the certificate still enjoy the right to travel through the EU, but their movement may be subject to limitations such as quarantining upon arrival. 

Policymakers argued it was no small feat to create a single EU-wide approach due to the extensive coordination required to align IT systems across more than two dozen countries. 

“The idea that I can go to Italy, show my mobile phone at a restaurant and a QR reader recognizes my code as proof of vaccination is unique worldwide,” Germany’s health minister, Jens Spahn, told reporters on Friday. “Nowhere else is there a digital vaccination certification that goes beyond isolated national solutions, in the U.S. there is not even a single, harmonized vaccination passport at a federal level thus far.”

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