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COVID-19

Could ‘health passports’ kickstart travel around Europe?

From digital certificates to "health passports", countries across Europe are considering how to relaunch travel and it could involve letting people prove their Covid-free status.

Could 'health passports' kickstart travel around Europe?
A picture taken on March 3, 2021 in Paris shows a vaccine vial reading "Covid-19 vaccine" and a syringe on an European passport. (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP)

But with patchy vaccine access around the world and mounting concerns over data privacy, questions are swirling about how the measures will work in practice.

EU has a plan 

The European Union unveiled a plan Wednesday to set up a travel certificate to help restore freedom of movement within the bloc for citizens inoculated against the coronavirus.

“With this digital certificate we aim to help member states reinstate the freedom of movement in a safe, responsible and trusted manner,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said.

It will show “whether the person has either been vaccinated, or has a recent negative test, or has recovered from Covid, and thus has antibodies.”

‘It’s not a vaccine passport’

The plan may however face stiff resistance from many members states, particularly over fears of discrimination against those still waiting for a vaccine.

According to EU commission spokesman Eric Mamer, “We don’t call it a vaccine passport we call it a green digital certificate.”

“It is a document that will describe the medical situation of the individuals who hold this certificate.”

READ ALSO: How are European countries comparing in the battle against Covid ‘third wave’?

(AFP)

There’s an app for that?

Many programmes under development are geared towards facilitating travel and come in the form of smartphone apps with varying criteria for a clean bill of health.

Vaccine passports, for example, are a popular way to tackle proof of immunity with jab rollouts under way across the globe.

There are also apps that accept positive antibody tests as proof of immunity for those who have had the virus and recovered.

But the World Health Organization has warned that there is no evidence to show that recovered Covid sufferers with antibodies are protected from a second infection.

French President Emmanuel Macron recently suggested a more localised form of Covid-free permission slip: the so-called “health pass”.

This would only be valid within France’s borders but would allow a fully vaccinated person to, for example, eat in restaurants and attend certain events.

A board indicates the waiting line for passengers with a “AOK pass” at the arrivals area of Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport on March 18, 2021, during a trial stage of Air France’s digital sanitary pass “AOKpass”. (Photo by ERIC PIERMONT / AFP)

What do certain countries think?

The idea has not been without its critics in France, who worry that it could amount to coercion in a notoriously vaccine-sceptic country – however a trial has begun on two Air France routes of a digital pass which includes options for travellers to provide either their vaccine status or a recent negative Covid test.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has been one of the major proponents of a vaccination certificate at EU level. Known in Austria as the ‘Green Pass’, Kurz on Wednesday promised that vaccination certificates enabling international travel will be available from April for anyone who has received both doses of the vaccine, tested negative or recovered from the virus.

The Swiss government is in favour of an Israeli-style immunity certificate which would provide access to international travel as well as domestic benefits such as visiting restaurants and attending events.

In Italy, where authorities are struggling to speed up vaccinations, the government isn’t discussing vaccine passports – probably because so few people would actually be eligible for them. But commentators have expressed concerns that the scheme would discriminate against younger, healthy people, that it could expose sensitive personal data, and that it would amount to making vaccination compulsory when the Italian health ministry insists it should be voluntary.

In Sweden, which has announced its own plans for a digital ‘vaccine pass’, the Digitalisation Minister on Wednesday said he was positive towards the EU proposals “in principle” but said he had questions about some aspects of the plan.

READ ALSO: Sweden to introduce digital ‘vaccine passport’

Where can I sign up? 

China this month launched a digital health certificate for its 1.3 billion citizens that shows the holder’s vaccine status and virus test results.

Greece and Cyprus have vaccination passports specifically for travel to and from Israel, which has fully vaccinated 44 percent of its population.

Is it an official travel document?

No, and there is currently no effort under way to establish a required document to travel between countries.

The Chinese health passport is an attempt to make it easier for its citizens to travel abroad, but without recognition from other countries it is of little use.

For the moment, the applications are meant to facilitate various health checks still in place at different borders, with airlines among major proponents.

Through several of its member carriers, the International Air Transport Association has been offering a digital pass allowing passengers to easily prove their health status before boarding.

READ ALSO: France to trail ‘vaccine passports’ for flights

Can we make it official?

Making health passports stricter or requiring them for travel could invite legal challenges.

A major worry is that banning unvaccinated people from travelling would exacerbate inequality since access to jabs is far from universal.

According to the latest count by AFP, only 3.5 percent of the European population has been fully vaccinated so far.

There are also concerns over how applications would access users’ personal data.

In France, there is already an official database of citizens who have been vaccinated against Covid-19, approved by the country’s privacy watchdog.

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TRAVEL NEWS

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

The mandatory EU-wide mask requirement for air travel is set to be dropped from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still require passengers to wear masks on some or all flights

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

Europe-wide facemask rules on flights are set to be ditched as early as next week in light of new recommendations from health and air safety experts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dropped recommendations for mandatory mask-wearing in airports and during flights in updated Covid-19 safety measures for travel issued on Wednesday, May 11th.

The new rules are expected to be rolled out from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still continue to require the wearing of masks on some or all of flights. And the updated health safety measures still say that wearing a face mask remains one of the best ways to protect against the transmission of the virus.

The joint EASA/ECDC statement reminded travellers that masks may still be required on flights to destinations in certain countries that still require the wearing of masks on public transport and in transport hubs.

It also recommends that vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask which offers a higher level of protection than a standard surgical mask.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said in the statement. 

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”  

ECDC director Andrea Ammon added: “The development and continuous updates to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have given travellers and aviation personnel better knowledge of the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. 

“While risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal. 

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission. 

“The rules and requirements of departure and destination states should be respected and applied consistently, and travel operators should take care to inform passengers of any required measures in a timely manner.”

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