The European Union’s Digital COVID Certificate, which is aimed at restarting mobility in the 27-country bloc, comes into force today in the midst of a fresh wave of the coronavirus that is threatening to prompt a new closure of borders. What’s more, the air travel sector, one of the potential major beneficiaries of the system, fears that the diversity of verification systems could lead to large lines at airports, or in the worst-case scenario, end up limiting options for travel.
The European Commission has called on all governments to guarantee that anyone who holds the certificate be exempt from restrictions to travel, such as additional coronavirus testing or quarantines. Brussels believes it essential that “clear and timely information” be supplied so that “citizens can be confident when traveling abroad during the summer.”
But the fear of the spread of the delta variant of the virus and doubts about the epidemiological situation of the countries most dependent on tourism – such as Portugal and Spain – has led governments such as Germany’s to warn that it will veto the entry of travelers coming from countries where lax controls are in place. Brussels is hoping that this reluctance and technical problems will be overcome, and that the certificate will become not only a tool for travel from one EU country to another, but that it will also work as a pass for other activities, such as concerts, exhibitions and conferences.
Three in one
The EU Digital COVID Certificate must be available for free to any EU citizen or resident who requests it in order to certify their partial or complete vaccination, the negative result of a coronavirus test or the fact that they have had and overcome Covid-19. The document, which can be issued electronically or in paper format, opens the doors to travel across the EU and the bearer will have exactly the same rights as vaccinated – or recovered – citizens in the country they are visiting.
Where is it valid?
The certificate and the applications that allow for it to be downloaded will be available from today, July 1, in the 27 EU countries with the exception of Ireland, which will not incorporate it until mid-July as a consequence of a cyberattack recently suffered by the country’s health system. The three countries in the European Economic Area – Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein – will also be participating in the system. Switzerland is due to join up, once a deal has been reached on the mutual recognition of the respective certificates.
Who will issue it?
The healthcare authorities in each country will issue the certificate once a person has been vaccinated or indeed when they request it. The certificate will be valid in any EU country thanks to a platform developed by the EC that permits interoperability of all issued documents. Residents of Spain should check with their regional healthcare system as to how exactly they can access the certificate, as the systems differ from territory to territory.
Which vaccines does it include?
The vaccination certificate will be granted to people who have received the vaccines authorized so far by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). These are: BioNTech-Pfizer, Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Janssen. If they want to, EU countries will also be able to accept a vaccination certificate for any of the other vaccines authorized for their emergency use by the World Health Organization (WHO).
How old do you need to be?
The certificate will be available for all ages. Children aged between 12 and 15 will be able to receive the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine, according to the EMA. Minors will also be able to obtain the certificate to certify that they have overcome Covid-19 or have received a negative coronavirus test.
What will the certificate do?
The certificate has been developed primarily to facilitate movement between countries. But on Wednesday, the European Commission for Justice Didier Reynders encouraged national authorities to roll its use out to other activities. “We recommend to all the member states to use such a tool not only for the free-movement law [...] but also for all the possible national uses, for other purposes: to go to concerts, festivals, theaters, restaurants,” Reynders said.
A voluntary option
The European Commission has insisted that the certificate is not a passport, and that its use is voluntary and will never be obligatory for travel. People who have not been vaccinated will enjoy the same freedom to travel from one country to another, but will be subject to the local restrictions in place such as tests or a quarantine.
The small print
The complications with the system start with the small print. Governments have reserved the right to impose restrictions on travelers from any country when they consider it opportune for reasons of public health. Any possible measures must be communicated to the Commission and the rest of the member states and be duly justified. But different levels of discretion will be difficult to avoid and risk fragmenting the system, in particular, should the more-contagious delta variant discovered in India continue to spread quickly in certain areas, or indeed any other strain. Germany has already warned that it will impose restrictions or even veto the entry of nationals from countries that are unable to contain infections, with Portugal already in its sights.
Diversity of systems
The European air travel sector, which has seen a fall in activity of 54% compared to the last quarter in 2019, before the pandemic hit, was trusting that it could take advantage of the certificate to recover lost activity in July and in particular in August. But Airlines for Europe (A4E), one of the main business associations in the sector, warned on Tuesday that there is a risk that the range of different verification systems could cause a spiral of checks, lines and delays to flights that end up ruining the summer campaign. The association has complained that despite the efforts of the EC to create a common certificate, “there are at least 10 different national concepts and solutions.” It has also warned that this fragmentation and the possibility of double or triple verification of the certificate in a single journey “threatens the success of the restarting of plane journeys this summer and will undermine the free circulation of citizens through the EU.”
Checks on departure
The European Commission has called on member states to avoid the duplication of controls. Brussels considered it to be sufficient for the validity of the certificate to be checked in the country of departure, meaning that checks on arrival would be redundant. The EC has also recommended that, as far as possible, that verification of the certificate be carried out before passengers arrive at the airport to avoid long lines and crowds that would breach social-distancing guidelines. The Commission has also called for the controls to be sporadic and not systematic. The A4E association has pointed to the fact that the time that checks take has already risen 500%, to an average of 12 minutes per passenger.
English version by Simon Hunter.