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Doubts on day one of the EU’s Digital Covid Certificate system: ‘I hope they don’t ask us for it’

The measure aimed at facilitating travel in the 27-country bloc has come into force, but many travelers are still uncertain about how to obtain it and how it will be requested in airports

Pasaporte Covid
A person looks at the European Union‘s Digital Covid Certificate on a cellphone.EUROPA PRESS (Europa Press)

The Adolfo Suárez-Madrid Barajas Airport was still bereft of large crowds on Thursday morning. There were a few passengers surrounded by suitcases outside Terminal 1, however. “Have we got everything?” asked one of the group. The ensuing checks of their luggage did not include the European Union’s Digital COVID Certificate, a document that is aimed at helping get EU residents moving again now that the Covid-19 vaccination campaign is progressing at pace across the 27-country bloc.

Up until Tuesday, Spain had issued 3.4 million of these certificates, according to the Health Ministry. They are being issued by each regional health authority, and can either be applied for in digital format or in paper form. The Catalonia region tops the list, with 600,000 documents distributed. Madrid, meanwhile, did not start to make them available until Thursday, the official launch day for the system. Users were faced with repeated problems with the online system, which the regional health department confirmed and attributed to the “huge demand for the service.” The Madrid authorities have committed to strengthening the system.

We have traveled safely and comfortably, which is the most important thing right now

All of Spain’s regions and its autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla are now able to issue the EU certificates, which are available via the regional health services. (Residents of Spain should check with their regional healthcare system as to how exactly they can access the certificate.) Three territories, however – Extremadura, Castilla-La Mancha and La Rioja – are only issuing them for two of the factors they cover: those who have had Covid-19 and recovered, and those who have been vaccinated. These three regions are not yet issuing certificates that confirm a negative coronavirus test.

The document was not the topic of conversation among the travelers collecting their boarding passes at Barajas on Thursday. Nadia Díaz and Carmelo Santana, both 32, were an exception. The couple was headed to Mexico and had everything prepared. “We have the Covid certificate,” Díaz explained. “Although we’re not traveling to the European Union, we have a connecting flight in Paris and we decided to get it because we don’t know if they will ask us for it there.” While the travelers agreed that the document meant people could travel more safely, there were a lot of doubts about how to obtain it and how it will be requested in airports.

Díaz confirmed that they were taking their trip with a lot of uncertainty. “We don’t know if we’ll need anything else, we haven’t done anything else…” she said. “They are asking for a PCR test to return from Mexico, and we are not sure if the European passport will be enough,” Santana added. They both have had the two doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine since the beginning of June and this is reflected in their digital certificate, which can also be presented as a hard copy. Both consider the tool to be a good idea. “I feel safer with it,” Díaz stated.

While the Covid certificate officially came into force on July 1 across the EU, Spain was one of the countries that had already started to experiment with it. The test period began on June 7, along with seven other member states who had brought it into force. Since that moment, the airports in Spain have had the equipment in place to scan these certificates, despite the fact that not all regions were issuing them.

The certificate is not, however, a passport, according to the Spanish health authorities. It does not grant access to countries that would be vetoed otherwise, but it does serve to facilitate travel and avoid having to present negative coronavirus tests or quarantine in the rest of the EU assuming you have been fully vaccinated 14 days previously.

Extremadura, Castilla-La Mancha and La Rioja are only issuing the certificate for those who have had Covid-19 and recovered, and those who have been vaccinated

A voice over the loudspeaker system in Barajas instructed passengers to keep their masks on at all times and to respect social distancing. Meanwhile, Giga Drugan, 59, was rushing through the terminal along with her friend Nan Magdalena, 51. They were looking for the counter where they could get the boarding pass for their flight to Romania. “We’re going back home to see family after two years in Spain,” explained Drugan. “We were ready to return.” Both have been vaccinated but they had not requested their Covid certificate. “I don’t understand cellphones and I don’t know how you get it,” Drugan explained. “What’s more, they told me it wasn’t necessary.” “I hope they don’t ask us for it when we enter…” responded Magdalena, with concern.

Jesús Mínguez and Mariana Musuroi, 53, were also without the certificate. “I didn’t even know that it had come into force,” said Mínguez with surprise. The couple, who were traveling to Musoroi’s home city of Bucharest, said that they didn’t think they would have problems on the journey. “We’ve had our full vaccinations and we are carrying the documents that prove it, and with that I think we’ll be OK,” Mínguez explained, standing next to a trolley loaded with suitcases.

Alejandro Abarca, 42, was also unable to get the certificate. He was traveling to Paris with his partner, their daughter and her carer. “Of the three adults, I’m the only one who doesn’t have it, despite being vaccinated,” explained Abarca. He knew about it, but technology stood in his way. “I’ve had problems with the application,” he said. “Perhaps a lot of people were connected at the same time…” His only option was to take an antigen test before flying. “I don’t have a vaccine!” complained his five-year-old daughter as she put on a colorful pair of sunglasses. “I don’t think there’s any problem with my daughter, she doesn’t need the certificate so we’re calm about that,” he added.

A few passengers were trickling out from the arrivals zone at the terminal. Among them was Sara Vidal, 33, who was pushing a trolley full of luggage toward the exit, accompanied by her partner. Both worked as teachers in Kuwait, but on Thursday they arrived back in Spain to start a new life. They are vaccinated and had traveled using the EU certificate, which they were carrying in digital format. “When we went through customs they scanned it and it worked very well,” Vidal explained. She said she was glad to see that there were no lines for the documents to be checked. “The truth is that this document allows for the flow of people to be streamlined so that you don’t have to show any papers,” she said. “It’s all systemized.” She added she thought it was a good system. “We have traveled safely and comfortably, which is the most important thing right now.”

English version by Simon Hunter.

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