Saturday, May 15, 2021

EU’s COVID travel pass will let countries choose Russia, China vaccines – POLITICO

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The EU’s plan to get vaccinated people traveling again — the “digital green certificate” — will leave key decisions up to member countries, including whether to accept the Russian and Chinese vaccines.

According to a draft of the plan obtained by POLITICO, the European Commission will propose that any EU country allowing vaccinated people to skip pandemic-related travel restrictions — such as testing or self-isolation — must accept other countries’ vaccination certificates “under the same conditions.” 

But, it adds, that obligation only extends to EU-approved COVID-19 vaccines, meaning Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s Sinopharm vaccines won’t be covered, despite some EU countries, such as Hungary, using them. Still, the draft stresses EU countries can choose to accept Russian and Chinese vaccines at their own discretion. 

“This should not prevent Member States from deciding to accept vaccination certificates issued for other COVID-19 vaccines,” it reads.

The Commission is due to unveil the proposal on Wednesday. 

The offering shows the tightrope the EU is walking on the issue. Officials are trying to simultaneously navigate disparate vaccine regimes, get people moving again to restart the economy while balancing warnings that Russian and Chinese vaccines shouldn’t get the same status as EU-authorized vaccines against the need to get citizens inoculated as quickly as possible. 

Demonstrating how fraught the subject is, Andrea Ammon, the director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, said Tuesday there wasn’t enough information yet on how long virus immunity from vaccines or prior infections lasts to justify granting special privileges.

The plans have also raised concerns that unvaccinated travelers could face discrimination. To circumvent this, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen previously said the certificate should not only cover travelers’ vaccinations, but also list their tests or recovery from the virus. 

Open borders?

The certificate “cannot be a pre-condition to exercise free movement rights and cannot … be a pre-condition to make use of cross-border passenger transport services such as airlines, trains, coaches or ferries,” the draft proposal stresses.

The Commission proposal includes plans for an “interoperable test certificate” to improve the acceptance of test results in other EU countries, although it would still be up to the destination countries to determine “for how long a negative test certificate should be considered valid.”

An “interoperable certificate of recovery” is also necessary to make sure patients who had COVID-19, but may continue to test positive despite no longer being infectious, aren’t prevented from traveling, the Commission argues. That certificate should not be issued “sooner than twenty days after the first positive test results,” the text proposes.

Personal data provided in the certificate would be limited to what is “strictly necessary,” according to the draft, and would include information such as the brand of vaccine taken, as well as the date and place of vaccination.

The pass would ensure a “very high” level of data protection, the text says, adding that only relevant national authorities in the destination country — as well as cross-border transport services — would use the personal data to verify a person’s vaccination, test or recovery status.

The certificate should not require a database at the EU level, it adds.

The plan also aims to clamp down on unreliable or faked test results, which the Commission’s draft says “pose a significant risk to public health.”

While COVID tests have been a prerequisite for travel across much of Europe for months, several EU countries have reported incidents of falsified test results, creating a headache for airlines that have been fined for accepting them.

The digital certificate — which would be free of charge — would be made available to EU citizens and their family members, whatever their nationality, as well as non-EU nationals living in an EU country.

The Commission warns that its plan should not be understood as “encouraging” restrictions on free movement countries have put in place in response to the pandemic.

But the draft proposal doesn’t preclude certificate-holders from still facing quarantine or testing restrictions — they could even be denied entry. But the draft does require authorities to alert other EU countries and the Commission to any of these restrictions at least three days before they’re introduced, along with a justification, precise scope and duration.

Additional reporting by Carlo Martuscelli.

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