How will the EU's 'Covid passports' work for travellers?
The European Parliament and the 27 member states reached agreement this week on a digital Covid certificate that should pave the way for frictionless summer travel across the European Union. But what will the passes mean for tourists and visitors in practice?
The provisional agreement between the European Parliament and member states on the EU Digital Covid Certificate means that the scheme is well on track to be ready by the end of June, says the EU Commission.
“European citizens are looking forward to travelling again, and today's agreement means they will be able to do so safely very soon," said Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.
The EU hopes the certificates, which they insist are not "vaccine passports", will make travel easier and safer, and boost the economies of tourism-dependent nations.
So what are these certificates?
The EU Digital Covid Certificate, whose final name appears to be settled on - it was previously called the Digital Green Certificate - will be used by all EU as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway as well as Switzerland.
They have been touted for some time. In March, the head of the European Commission vaccines task force Thierry Breton unveiled the first European "health passport" (see tweet below), claiming he hoped Europe will have a summer season "comparable to last year".
The idea is that the document - which can be on paper or stored electronically - will carry proof that the holder has either;
- been fully vaccinated
- recently recovered from the virus (meaning the holder has antibodies in their system)
- recently tested negative for Covid
Ursula von der Leyen said: "The EU Digital Covid Certificate is free of charge, secure and accessible to all. It will cover vaccination, test and recovery offering different options to citizens.
"All EU citizens have a fundamental right to free movement in the EU. The EU Digital Covid Certificate, available in paper or digital format, will make it easier for Europeans to travel - whether to see their families and loved ones or to get some well-deserved rest."
It will also be available to non-EU citizens who are permanent residents in an EU or Schengen zone country.
So what will this mean for travel in reality?
The EU's hope is that the certificates will help smooth travel around the Bloc, which up until now has depended on the measures brought in by individual member states.
The EU parliament is urging member states not to impose additional travel restrictions such as having to get tested before travel or quarantine on arrival.
"Member States shall refrain from imposing additional travel restrictions on the holders of an EU Digital Covid Certificate, unless they are necessary and proportionate to safeguard public health," says the EU.
But given that anything related to borders is decided on at a national level, we'll have to wait and see whether this certificate really does herald a unified approach to frictionless travel this summer. Much of course will depend on Covid infection rates in countries.
In a short video on the subject, France's Europe minister Clément Beaune said that travel within the EU/Schengen zone with the vaccine passport would "be in place across Europe from July 1st".
So will I need to download a new phone app?
No, well, at least not an EU app but you'll likely need the app developed in your country of residence if there is one.
The Commission has made it clear to The Local that there won't be a new EU app.
"The Commission will not develop an EU app, neither for citizens, nor for authorities to check the certificates. This is for the Member States to do," a spokesperson said.
They added: "Every member state will need to develop their national implementation for the EU Digital Covid Certificate. National wallet apps could be developed, but are not the only option. Integration in existing tracing or other apps, commercial solutions, digital storage of PDFs and of course paper certificates are also possible."
So in other words the EU Digital Covid certificate is more of an agreement between member states rather than anything tangible Brussels will produce.
It is down to each member state to produce the paper certificates and apps, that will carry proof, in the form of a QR code, of vaccination, a negative test or full recovery from Covid.
The EU insists the certificates will be "free of charge, obtained easily and also available to people vaccinated before the EU Digital Covid Certificate Regulation has entered into force."
So it's down to individual countries?
Apparently so. While some countries are well advanced in developing their "green passes", "health passports" or "Covid passes" others are lagging behind.
The EU told The Local that is offering help to those member states who need it.
"To facilitate the work at national level, the Commission has provided a reference app to support Member States to develop their national solution to scan and check the QR codes, a template software for Member States to issue EU Digital COVID Certificate and a reference wallet app for governments to offer to citizens to store EU Digital Covid Certificate," a spokesperson said.
Individual states are creating their own domestic apps. It makes sense to repurpose them to allow for international travel.
According to Reuters, EU countries link their national vaccine records to a central system using a template provided by German developers.
This centralised "Gateway" system basically lets all these different national apps to "talk" to each other and therefor enable travel between EU countries.
If that works, holders of the French app - for example - can travel into Germany or Italy easily.
France’s Europe minister Clément Beaune told radio station Europe 1: “You will have the same code to go from Paris to Athens, from Berlin to Madrid. “It will be recognised by the security and health authorities of different European countries."
So will it happen by summer?
The EU insists the scheme is "well on track to be ready end of June, as planned."
But it says: "The political agreement will now have to be formally adopted by the European Parliament and the Council. The regulation will enter into force on July 1st, with a phasing-in period of six weeks for the issuance of certificates for those Member States that need additional time."
A six-week phasing in period takes us to mid-August.
Somethings have been resolved: Both antigen (lateral flow) and PCR tests will be accepted and while the passes would be limited to vaccines that have received EU-wide authorisation, Member States can decide to accept other vaccines in addition.
Where do I get the QR codes from?
The codes will normally be issued by a doctor, testing laboratory and vaccination centre. Or failing that they will be issued by the centralised health systems in each country.
Again much will probably be down to individual states - from whether passes will be available at vaccination or test centres, to if you will need to book an appointment with your GP. Some people have reported returning to vaccination centres weeks after their jabs to get their certificates and QR codes.
Millions of people who have already been vaccinated will also need to get hold of one.
The EU says no one will be forced to use the EU certificate.
What about non-EU countries?
Good question. The European Commission has been in talks with US officials on mutual recognition for some time. And European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hinted in a recent Stateside interview that fully vaccinated Americans would be able to visit Europe this summer.
While France's Europe Minister sounded very certain on travel within the EU, when it came to travel outside the Bloc, he was a little more equivocal, saying it "will doubtless be possible in certain countries with whom we are in the process of negotiating over opening up travel this summer".
The EU says it has been working closely to inform the United States, the World Health Organization and others about its progress to allow the certificate to be used on a wider scale. But it is not clear how this will work in practice for travellers from the United States, who mostly don't have vaccine certificates with QR codes on them.
Brussels has also been in negotiations with near non-EU nation the UK. It was reported on Friday that the EU has delayed its decision to exempt vaccinated UK travellers from travel restrictions into the EU due to concerns over the so-called Indian variant.
Meanwhile, the country's Transport Secretary Grant Schapps said recently that the UK is modifying its NHS app so it can be used as a Covid-19 passport and allow foreign travel.
But the BBC reported that the app would not be ready "imminently", while the Department of Health and Social Care said in a statement that it was "being considered as part of the digital route".
Nor has it been confirmed how it would work in connection with the EU Gateway system.
EU nationals and legal residents of member states are eligible to use them, but you may need to carry proof of residency, too, to avoid awkward questions about having, for example, a Spanish Covid-passport and a British standard passport.
What about personal data?
Another good question. The EU has been hot on protecting personal data for a long time. The Commission has said the QR code-based system will be safe and secure.
Things may change during the development of the system, but it has been suggested that sensitive personal data would be stored locally on smartphones and kept separate from information the EU Gateway system (that still doesn't exist) would be able to access.
There's understandable concern that such a system may be vulnerable to fraud - something developers and the Commission will have to work on to protect users.
And for those who don't have a smartphone?
If you either don't have a smartphone or are not a fan of fiddling around with apps, you will also be able to present a paper certificate at the border. Any certificate that meets EU standards and has a QR code can be scanned from a paper certificate as well as an app.