EU Digital Covid Certificate: Mostly Smooth SailingReading Time: 4 minutes
Things are mostly going according to plan for the EU’s Digital Covid Certificate, which made its official debut on 1 July. But some questions remain regarding how smoothly things will go for the travelers in Europe who use it, given that some countries can still exercise their own discretion and override the privileges it offers, especially in light of the rapid spread of new variants of the COVID-19 virus.
Just this past weekend following the introduction of the covid pass, the Czech Republic announced that Spanish is now on the country’s “red list,” meaning that it is a country with a high coronavirus risk. Starting today, 5 July, travelers planning to visit Czechia will have to follow test and quarantine requirements: taking a COVID-19 test upon their arrival and providing a second negative test result after the 5th day of quarantine.
In the EU’s attempt to resuscitate freedom of movement and revive sagging tourism revenues, back in March the European Commission proposed an EU Covid Certificate, reached a provisional agreement on it in May, and last month began working on the technical background of what is being called the Digital Covid Certificate, which simplifies the need for testing and/or quarantine measures for travelers in the EU’s 27-member bloc. Last week, on 1 July, it went live.
Now, regardless of their mode of travel, tourists are able to present a printout of their certificate or a QR code on their smartphones. The document lets the given European country know: 1) whether the person is vaccinated, 2) if they’ve tested negative, and 3) if they’ve contracted and recovered the COVID-19 virus. It can help facilitate entry into participating countries and, for example, help such travelers avoid a possible quarantine.
The European Commission says that 200 million of the passes have been issued. Behind the certificate itself, EU member states have access to a system that lets them share information about a traveler’s Covid status.
The following vaccines, which have been authorized for use across the bloc, are accepted within the framework of the Digital Covid Certificate: Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca (however, some member states are also recognizing other vaccines as well).
The Covid pass encompasses the EU countries, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein, while Switzerland is allegedly a work in progress that could come on board soon.
Interest groups within the travel and tourism sectors say the use of the Digital Covid Certificate is likely to result in “travel chaos” at airports and other arrival points, and that much more time is needed because of the multiple checks that authorities need to perform. Those organizations are suggesting better coordination and setting up verification systems before departure, like during the pre-flight check-in process.
Among those that have lobbed criticism at the Digital Covid Certificate is the International Air Travel Association, which points out that the travel pass has “10 different national approaches,” and that those differences need to be smoothed out if Europe’s travel industry is to be saved. The Association suggests standardizing verification protocols across EU member states to reduce complications.
Also, some believe that via its covid certificate Europe has created a two-tier vaccination system putting people from poorer countries at a disadvantage. If someone from the UK, for example, received one of the 5 million Astra Zeneca jabs manufactured in India (known as “Covishield”), their vaccination has not been approved by the European Commission and thus is ineligible within the scope of the Digital Covid Certificate.
Contingencies, changing situations
Still, the covid travel pass countries can still exercise their own discretion in consideration of the pandemic situation in the country from where a traveler arrives. The first example, in addition to the recent move by the Czech authorities, was Germany putting restrictions on those coming from Portugal, which German authorities consider a hotspot for the Delta variant of the coronavirus, putting on the so-called “emergency brake.” Basically, the restriction means non Germans cannot travel to Germany for now, even if they are vaccinated. Other countries could replicate Germany’s move, given that the Delta variant looks to make up the majority of covid cases in the future.
Portuguese prime minister Antonio Costa was critical of Germany’s decision, commenting that it may have been taken due to overall confusion in member states regarding travel policy within the European Union.
But the coronavirus delta variant does seem like a growing threat in Portugal, accounting for 4% of cases in May, but growing to nearly 56% last month. Covid cases have gone up, with the country seeing the most it has seen since February, with hundreds of hospitalizations.
“Free and travel-safe summer”
Via the activation of the Digital Covid Certificate last week, the EU has fulfilled its promise to have an EU-wide system to facilitate free and safe travel this summer, according to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who commented in a statement:
“The European Union is delivering for its citizens. The European Digital COVID Certificate is a symbol of an open and safe Europe that is opening cautiously putting the protection of the health of our citizens first.”
While the covid pass was official and operational as of 1 July, the Commission has provided a phasing-in period of six weeks for some member states that need more time to issue them.
Within that time frame, the rollout of the Digital Covid Certificate appeared to be going according to plan, although the devil may lie in the details at a local level. One publication in Hungary, for example, noticed that an update to the Hungarian immunity certificate was still missing just before the introduction of the EU certificate. Meanwhile, at the end of May, Bulgaria had reportedly harmonized its information system regarding covid with that of the European Union in preparation to go live with the European pass.
Get official information from the European Commission on the EU Digital COVID Certificate here.