European leaders are considering a proposal to introduce a common EU-wide Coronavirus vaccination passport. The so-called Covid passports would permit those who have been vaccinated to travel freely within the European Union without the need for quarantining and testing.
The leaders of several European countries heavily dependent on tourism are pushing for Covid passports to be implemented with immediate effect. Others say that it is far too early to consider such a move, especially because the EU's Coronavirus vaccine rollout has been dogged by delays and questions about the efficacy of certain vaccines, particularly in light of the virus's new mutant strains.
The idea of Covid passports has also sparked a heated debate over government overreach and the constitutionality and ethics of vaccine-related discrimination. At the same time, some EU member countries have threatened to act unilaterally and issue their own Covid passports if the EU fails to produce bloc-wide certification.
In short, the Covid pandemic continues to expose fault lines within 27-member EU, which remains more divided than ever.
European leaders held a two-day virtual summit on February 25-26 to discuss ways to solve problems with the Coronavirus vaccine rollout in the European Union. The vaccine launch has been plagued by bureaucratic sclerosis, poorly-negotiated contracts, penny-pinching and blame-shifting — resulting in needless shortages of vaccines.
The European Commission initially recommended that at least 70% of adults in the EU be vaccinated by the beginning of summer. So far, however, the EU's inoculation rate is still below 10% and the original goal will not be met until after the end of summer at the earliest.
At the current vaccination rate, the EU will not reach the 70% threshold — needed to reduce the spread of the virus, relieve pressure on health care systems, and allow restrictions on businesses society to be lifted — until March 2024, according to independent calculations.
If the present rates of inoculation do not improve, Germany will not reach the 70% threshold until May 2024; Belgium until September 2024; Denmark until August 2025; the Netherlands until September 2025; and Italy until December 2027, according to independent calculations. The delays will have a devastating impact on the tourism industry.
Tourism-dependent countries, including Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Portugal and Spain, are urging other EU states to adopt Covid passports, which would be modeled on the "green passport" system implemented by Israel.
Israelis who have been fully vaccinated are given a Green Pass — a digital certificate — which is valid for six months and will allow them access to gyms, hotels, cinemas, plays, concerts, swimming pools and indoor restaurant dining.
On March 1, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, tweeted that "this month" she would present a legislative proposal for a "Digital Green Pass." The certificate would provide proof that a person has been vaccinated against Covid-19. The aim is to "gradually enable" Europeans to "move safely in the European Union or abroad — for work or tourism."
In fact, the 27 EU member states are nowhere close to reaching an agreement on common rules for a mutual recognition of vaccine certificates. Also unresolved are a host of constitutional, ethical, legal and scientific questions. The introduction of Covid passports also risks creating a market for forged documents.
The Royal Society, the United Kingdom's national academy of sciences, recently issued a 22-page report — "Twelve Criteria for the Development and Use of Covid-19 Vaccine Passports —which may serve as a roadmap for countries both inside and outside the European Union.
The report concludes that although an internationally standardized Covid-19 vaccine passport system is feasible, much more time is needed to meet the basic technical and scientific prerequisites for such certificates to become reality. The report urges political leaders to exercise caution and consider the longer-term implications, especially regarding questions of government surveillance and constitutional rights to privacy.
According to the report, a vaccine passport must fulfill at least twelve requirements: 1) meet benchmarks for Covid-19 immunity; 2) accommodate differences between vaccines in their efficacy, as well as changes in vaccine efficacy against emerging variants; 3) be internationally standardized; 4) have verifiable credentials; 5) have defined uses; 6) be based on a platform of interoperable technologies; 7) be secure for personal data; 8) be portable; 9) be affordable to individuals and governments; 10) meet legal standards; 11) meet ethical standards; and 12) have conditions of use that are understood and accepted by the passport holders.
Professor Melinda Mills, Director of the Leverhulme Center for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford and lead author of the report, said:
"Understanding what a vaccine passport could be used for is a fundamental question — is it literally a passport to allow international travel or could it be used domestically to allow holders greater freedoms? The intended use will have significant implications across a wide range of legal and ethical issues that need to be fully explored and could inadvertently discriminate or exacerbate existing inequalities.
"International standardization is one of the criteria we believe essential, but we have already seen some countries introducing vaccine certificates related to travel or linked to quarantine or attending events. We need a broader discussion about multiple aspects of a vaccine passport, from the science of immunity through to data privacy, technical challenges and the ethics and legality of how it might be used."
Professor Christopher Dye, Professor of Epidemiology in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford and co-author of the Royal Society report, added:
"An effective vaccine passport system that would allow the return to pre-Covid-19 activities, including travel, without compromising personal or public health, must meet a set of demanding criteria — but it is feasible. First there is the science of immunity, then the challenges of something working across the world that is durable, reliable and secure. There are the legal and ethical issues and if you can crack all that, you have to have the trust of the people.
"Huge progress has been made in many of these areas, but we are not there yet. At the most basic level, we are still gathering data on exactly how effective each vaccine is in preventing infection and transmission and on how long the immunity will last."
The Reuters News Agency reported that there are still many unanswered questions about immunity to Covid-19:
"EU officials also point out there is no guidance yet from the WHO and EU agencies whether people who have received two shots of the Covid-19 vaccine can still carry the coronavirus and infect others, even if no longer vulnerable themselves.
"It was also not clear if people could be infectious having already fought off the coronavirus themselves, for how long they remained immune and if they too should get certificates."
Professor Carsten Maple, a cyber security expert at the Alan Turing Institute, the UK's national institute for data science, warned that criminals could exploit the demand from prospective travelers for vaccine passports:
"This really gives that kind of incentive. You'll get people who've got these rights, especially if it's mandatory. Other people will be excluded. People, where it is mandatory and really offers a significant difference, will be incentivized to create a market of forged documents.
"We know that in Israel they've made statements about anybody who tries to forge will face criminal proceedings and possibly be imprisoned. So, they really think that this is a risk that could happen."
Maple also raised concerns over how a vaccine passport, once issued, could be revoked if medical evidence indicated that immunity was short-lived:
"What we need to do in dynamic environments is to consider: how can we revoke that certificate effectively? That's a real challenge we see in security of systems very often. I think it's very pertinent in this case."
Portugal's Prime Minister Antonio Costa, whose country currently heads the EU's six-month rotating presidency, said that he wanted Covid passports to be in place by this summer:
"It is a document that, obviously, will greatly facilitate freedom of movement, will greatly help the functioning of the internal market and will, of course, help tourism to gradually recover....
"The ideal is that this green certificate is not a national certificate, but a certificate common to the whole European Union and that it is subject to mutual recognition.
"We are defenders of a European-wide measure and it is with this objective that...this document will exist by this summer....
"It is above all essential that the European Commission can have consolidated scientific information on the degree of immunization ensured by vaccines and also by the immunity granted through contraction of the virus."
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz tweeted:
"In consultation with other EU member states, we are in favor of a digital green passport, similar to the one in #Israel. This should offer the possibility to prove on the mobile phone that one has been tested, vaccinated or recovered. Our goal: to avoid a permanent lockdown & finally to enable freedom to travel within the EU as well as to visit events or restaurants."
On March 2, Reuters reported that Austria and Denmark, chafing at the slow rollout of Covid-19 vaccines within the European Union, have joined forces with Israel to produce second-generation vaccines against mutations of the Coronavirus. The move will be seen by many as a geopolitical humiliation for the European Union, which is trailing far behind Israel's "world-beating" vaccination campaign.
Adding insult to injury, Czechia, Hungary and Slovakia have broken ranks with the European Union and have ordered vaccines produced by China and Russia, even though the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has yet to rule on whether they are both safe and effective.
Meanwhile, Greek Tourism Minister Haris Theoharis said that Greece had reached a unilateral agreement with the United Kingdom, and that all Britons, whether they have had a coronavirus vaccine or not, will be allowed into Greece this summer. He explained that Britons who have received the Covid vaccine will no longer be required to self-isolate upon arrival, and those who have not been vaccinated will require a negative Covid-19 test before travelling to Greece.
Greece has already signed an agreement to admit Israeli tourists this summer who can prove their vaccination status with the Israeli digital certificate.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo argued that now is not the time to discuss a Covid passport. "It's really not a good idea to start granting such privileges in this situation," he said. "Certainly not because the active population, the people who travel, are barely vaccinated."
Belgian Foreign Affairs Minister Sophie Wilmès warned that vaccine passports could "lead to discrimination between European citizens if there is no universal access to vaccines."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a February 25 interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, said that Covid passports would be premature because data on the efficacy of vaccines is incomplete:
"First of all, it really has to be clearly established that people who have been vaccinated are no longer contagious. As long as the number of people vaccinated is so much smaller than the number waiting to be vaccinated, the state should not treat the two groups differently.
"When it comes to private contractual relationships, the state has little room to interfere. Overall, however, I am convinced that something like this must be widely discussed, certainly also in Parliament. If we have made a vaccination offer to enough people and some of them do not want to be vaccinated at all, one will have to consider whether there should be openings and accesses in certain areas only for vaccinated people. But we're not there yet."
The German Ethics Council (Deutsche Ethikrat), in guidance issued on February 4, advised against treating people who have already been vaccinated differently from those who have not. This applies to both rights and obligations, meaning, for instance, that mask requirements and social distancing rules should continue to apply to everyone.
The Council also recommended that government-mandated restrictions should be lifted for everyone at the same time — but not until it is proved that the vaccination program is successful.
Other European governments have taken a wide range of different positions on Covid passports:
- Britain is reviewing the potential to use vaccine passports as a means to reopen the economy. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the review, to be delivered before June 21, will explore the "moral, philosophical and ethical viewpoints" on vaccine passports. He added that the UK "cannot be discriminatory" against people who are unable to be vaccinated.
- Bulgaria, where tourism comprises 12% of gross domestic product, is backing the idea of digital Covid-19 vaccine passports.
- Denmark is developing digital certificates that prove people have been vaccinated against Covid-19.
- Estonia is testing so-called digital immunity passports that collect vaccination data and enable people to share their immunity status with a third party, such as an employer.
- Finland is planning to introduce a coronavirus vaccine certificate. The certificate system would require a government decree, which is currently being drafted by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health.
- France says that it is too early talk of a Covid passport. Secretary of State for Tourism Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne said: "The idea of restricting the movement of people to only those who are vaccinated is a debate that seems premature to us. You have 4% to 5% of the European population vaccinated, the most vulnerable and not those who spontaneously can travel. The fact of conditioning travel to the fact of being vaccinated is an ethical and not a small issue."
- Iceland now provides Covid-19 digital vaccination certificates to citizens who have received two doses of the vaccine. Iceland, which is not a member of the EU but is part of the Schengen Area, will recognize vaccination certificates that are issued from any EU or Schengen country.
- Italy, where tourism accounts for 13% of gross domestic product, has officially been reticent about Covid passports. In a Facebook post, however, Italian Tourism Minister Massimo Garavaglia wrote that in principle he agrees: "The adoption of new European digital tools that document the state of health of travelers...will be crucial for the recovery of the travel industry. We must work together with our European colleagues in this direction. Vaccine strategy will play a key role."
- Poland plans to provide vaccine passports to people who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
- Romania is opposed to an EU-wide Covid-19 passport for travel. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said: "To use these certificates to divide the population of Europe in two does not seem like a good thing to me."
- Spain, where tourism accounts for nearly 12% of gross domestic product, said that it would not take unilateral measures on Covid passports and would wait for European Union to set common rules.
- Sweden plans to launch a digital coronavirus "vaccine passport" by summer, assuming there is an international standard in place for the document by then.
In an essay for the Financial Times, Melinda Mills, lead author of the Royal Society report on Covid passports," wrote:
"Vaccine passports are essentially certificates that link proof of vaccination to the identity of the holder, a potential silver bullet to return to our pre-Covid-19 lives. Before the pandemic, the EU was working on plans for cross-border electronic certificates to replace the paper booklets that many travelers carry. At this week's EU summit some leaders pressed for further steps towards coronavirus passports.
"But would these certificates only be required for international travel or could they be needed for getting a job, attending a football match, or buying some milk? ...
"There is also the question of mission creep. Recall the UK's early digital contact tracing app, which raised concerns about privacy, government surveillance and private sector data sharing....
"Credit cards and social media data hold a wealth of behavioral and location data, that companies regularly mine. With vaccine passports, it will come down to trust in government and that can only be won through transparency. There is a risk that the government expends time and money to create a passport system only to have the public recoil in horror.
"We also shouldn't forget we are globally interconnected. When travel resumes, visitors and workers will cross borders and need global standards such the WHO's Smart Vaccination Certificate. This could be a legal minefield of issues. Human rights and data protection need to be weighed against a duty of care and commercial freedom to act. Governments may make vaccine passports mandatory on economic grounds or to protect public health. Or they may decide to dodge that bullet but allow businesses to require them instead."
In an essay titled, "No Jab, No Job," Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff added:
"For weeks, ministers have been downplaying the idea of vaccine passports, which could be used to deny people who are unjabbed access to pubs, clubs, sporting or musical events, and potentially some workplaces. But this week brought a sudden volte-face. Now Michael Gove is to lead a review into whether they might be feasible, once all adults have been offered a dose.
"Presumably, it hasn't escaped ministers that promising twentysomethings a summer of Reading festival and football matches and clubbing, but only if they take the vaccine, could powerfully incentivize the age group most likely not to bother. Although officially the cabinet remains open-minded, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, admitted that he would 'probably do pretty much sort of anything' to go to the cinema or theatre again.
"The pressure group Liberty warns that vaccine passports could create a 'two-tier society,' where unvaccinated people overlap too closely for comfort with those who are already marginalised and discriminated against. Vaccine uptake is lower in BAME [Black, Asian and minority ethnic] communities, targeted by disinformation campaigns and often with good historical reasons to distrust authority figures, but also in poor white communities....
"Yet making freedom conditional on facing the needle takes us perilously close to the concept of compulsory vaccination, forcing anxious people to accept something they don't trust or else go underground... hardly likely to reassure anyone whose fear of the vaccine is bound up with a fear of an authoritarian state."
In an interview with Computer Weekly, cyber security expert Tim Mackey warned that technology is far from fool-proof, and that serious security reviews are necessary:
"Returning to a world where international travel and even air travel is once again commonplace is something we all want, but it requires far more than an app to be solved. Significant coordination between international entities is required to ensure that the data recorded by the app is correct and complete.
"Once in the app, the data needs to be verifiably secure and stored in a tamper evident form that itself can't be modified. Building confidence around this process requires some of the transparency seen within open source software development, where skilled practitioners are able to review the implementation and configuration of the proposed solution.
"Mis-steps along this path could easily tarnish the reputation of digital health passports and form a setback to the return to a pre-Covid-19 travel experience."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute.