The European Union recently took an important step in the direction of opening up travel within the bloc. EU Parliament and Council reached a provisional agreement with regard to the modalities pertaining to the EU Digital Covid certificate (EUDCC)/travel pass/vaccine passport. The arrangement is likely to come into place by the end of June.
EC president Ursula von der Leyen while commenting on the development said: “We are delivering on our commitment to have the EU Digital Covid Certificate up and running before the summer. European citizens are looking forward to travelling again, and today’s agreement means they will be able to do so safely very soon.”
EU citizens and citizens of some non-EU countries possessing the EUDCC/travel pass will be able to move freely within the bloc.
Like other parts of the world, EU had imposed restrictions on travel from outside the bloc in March 2020. Currently, travellers from 7 countries outside EU are allowed ( Australia, Israel, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand) whether vaccinated or not to entry into the EU. China may also be added to this list.
EU Travel Pass and its modalities
The concept of a document for travel within the EU was first proposed in March 2021. EU citizens will be eligible for the travel pass, which will have information about vaccination (jabs developed by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Oxford/AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson are recognized), tests or recent recovery from the disease. One of these conditions is essential for obtaining the document. France, Malta and Netherlands will be the first countries to use the EU digital Covid certificate for travel.
The first country to introduce the system of a vaccine passport, was Israel. Since February 2021, any Israeli citizen who has been fully vaccinated, or recovered from Covid-19 are eligible for what is called the ‘green pass.’ This document is essential for entering hotels, gyms and theatres. Other countries like UK, Canada and Japan too are likely to make vaccine passports a pre-requisite for entry.
Why opening up travel within the EU is important
The decision of EU to possibly open up travel is significant, because it shut borders to third countries in March 2020, and the economies of EU states are dependent upon tourism. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic tourism revenues dropped by a whopping $2.86 trillion in 2020. It is likely that after opening up travel within the bloc and a few countries outside it, the EU may ultimately open up to more countries outside the region.
The EU’s decision, however, raises a lot of questions. First, a number of developing countries have been complaining that the vaccine passport will be unfair to them, given the fact that the rate of vaccination has been slow so far. In Africa for instance, the rate of vaccination is very slow. Less than 2% of the doses administered globally have been given in Africa, and many African countries as a result have expressed their apprehension vis-à-vis the concept of a vaccine passport. In the case of India, slow rate of vaccination along with lack of preparedness has been cited as one of the main reasons for the ferocity of the second wave of the virus which began in the 1st week of April (only 9% of the population has received both doses of the vaccine). Even the World Health Organization has opposed the concept of a vaccine passport.
Second, the virus is unpredictable. The ASEAN countries which had been lauded for their handling of the first wave of the pandemic, and whose economies are dependent upon tourism such as Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand, planned to open air travel, but a sudden spurt in cases in recent months have meant that countries in the region have had to again impose lockdowns and proposed travel bubbles have been put on hold.
Third, the concept of a vaccine passport was also opposed in the UK and US on grounds of privacy, with many policymakers arguing that it would impinge upon the privacy of individuals.
If the EU wants the green certificate arrangement to work, it needs to accelerate the pace of vaccination – while countries like Malta (a small country) and Hungary have covered a significant percentage of their population (33.9% and 28.6% respectively), Germany and France have been able to cover less than 15% of their population. The UK on the other hand has vaccinated over 30% of its population.
The tourism sector of EU has been hit significantly by the pandemic and opening up travel within the bloc in a phased manner is a welcome step. At the same time, it is important that while giving priority to safety, equity is also maintained.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.