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EU vaccine passports might not be ready by the summer. Here’s why

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The EU's vaccine passport raises concerns on data privacy and discrimination.
The EU's vaccine passport raises concerns on data privacy and discrimination.   -   Copyright  Denis Charlet/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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The European Commission's proposal for a vaccine passport - officially called the Digital Green Pass - faces an uphill battle to get off the ground in time for the summer season.

Concerns related to fundamental rights, discrimination, data privacy, technological access and forgery are poised to become stumbling blocks for the innovative cross-border instrument, the likes of which has never been tried before in the European Union.

After weeks of increasing pressure from tourism-reliant countries, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on Monday that her team will soon put forward a draft law to introduce an EU-wide pass.

A spokesperson later said the objective of the pass will be to facilitate "safe and free movement in the EU" and will apply for both work and tourism.

The concrete details of the proposal will be unveiled later this month and will be followed by, at least, three months of technical work.

Given the notoriously intricate decision-making machinery of the EU, the most optimistic scenario to have the system in place appears to be late June or early July.

What has been already disclosed is that the EU instrument will be a more inclusive version of the much-discussed vaccination passport: besides proof on inoculation, the green pass will also include results of previous COVID-19 tests for those who haven't yet got the jab and medical statements for those who have recovered from the disease (and are presumed to be protected by temporary antibodies).

The pass "will respect data protection, security and privacy", von der Leyen said in her brief announcement.

But all these guarantees might not be enough to quell the doubts and reticence of critics who argue that such certificates will inevitably split citizens into two classes: the inoculated and the vulnerable.

'Not everything is in place yet'

In early February, the World Health Organization (WHO) published an interim position paper establishing its unambiguous opposition against "proof of COVID-19 vaccination for international travel as a condition for departure or entry".

The WHO cited a list of scientific, ethical, legal and technological considerations to dissuade governments from moving forward with the idea. The body considers "there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination" such as how much jabs limit the transmission of the virus, how much they protect against asymptomatic infection and how long the immunity lasts.

"Considering that there is limited availability of vaccines, preferential vaccination of travellers could result in inadequate supplies of vaccines for priority populations considered at high risk of severe COVID-19 disease," WHO concluded.

"WHO also recommends that people who are vaccinated should not be exempt from complying with other travel risk-reduction measures."

Days later, the Royal Society, the UK's national academy of sciences, released a report laying out 12 criteria for the development and use of COVID-19 vaccine passports. The criteria proposed certificates that are internationally standardised, based on defined uses, secure for personal data, portable, affordable and legal.

"We determined that vaccine passports or certificates will be feasible, but not everything is in place yet," professor Melinda Mills, from the University of Oxford and a lead author of the report, told Euronews.

"We know that vaccines protect people against serious illness, but what we don't know is the duration of immunity, so you would have to have some sort of expiry date on these [passports]," she added.

"Another question is about the emerging variants. There's some preliminary evidence that shows some of the vaccines might be compromised by this, so you'll actually have to think about the ability to revoke these [passports]."

Professor Mills points out that the European Union has set a target to inoculate 70% of the entire adult population by the summer, which could potentially leave 30% of EU citizens (around 135 million people) at risk of being discriminated against at the border.

Access to vaccination is contingent upon factors such as age, gender, race and professional status and is widely uneven across the bloc: Malta and Denmark are leading the race, while Bulgaria and Latvia lag behind. Non-discrimination on the basis of nationality is a defining value of European integration.

"Young people will probably be the last in line in many countries. And there are also people that can't get vaccinated for medical reasons: pregnant women, people with allergies. And what about vaccine hesitancy?" Mills wonders.

"If you roll this out, it could inadvertently exclude large parts of the population."

The professors also alert that digital passports could be hacked and forged, and even used for malicious tracking and commercial purposes. "People will also want to know, is this secure?"

The digital divide

Another barrier that could partially derail the European Commission's plan is the digital divide among EU countries and citizens.

As von der Leyen said, the green pass will be digital. Although access to this technology is widespread across the bloc, it is far from universal and varies with age, geography and income.

According to Eurostat, in 2019 almost three quarters (73 %) of the EU-27 adult population used a mobile device such as a mobile phone or portable computer (including laptops and tablets) to connect to the internet when away from home or work. The share among young people aged 16-29 years was higher, standing at 93%.

Eurostat
People who used mobile devices to access the internet away from home or work, 2019Eurostat

The Global Mobile Market Report, compiled by the insights company Newzoo, paints a similar picture: smartphone penetration in the EU's biggest economies (Germany, France and Italy) is estimated to be somewhere between 75 and 77%, lower than in the UK (78.9%) and the United States (81.6%).

These figures suggest that, if the pass is in fact fully digital, at least one-quarter of the EU population are exposed to being left out of the roll-out.

Data and privacy present an additional challenge. The bloc's strict data protection law, the GDPR, is certain to restrict the scope and usage of the pan-European certificate, although these limits could also help build trust among sceptical users.

The green pass will see private medical data become available to individuals and entities that seldom or never have access to this kind of confidential information.

"Putting sensitive health data into the hands of authorities — like border control agents, police officers, employers or school administrators — creates serious privacy risks right away and threatens to evolve into more permanent health surveillance infrastructure over time," Melody Patry, advocacy director at the NGO Access Now, told Reuters.

European Digital Rights (EDRi), an association of civil and human rights, said in December that vaccine passports entail "democratic rule of law gone wrong" and might convey "a false sense of security".

Passport politics

Governments have taken note of the potentially discriminatory side effects of vaccine passports and have started to voice their reservations as the public attention around the topic intensifies.

Earlier this year, Clément Beaune, France's secretary of state for European Affairs, told Franceinfo that the creation of these certificates was "very premature".

"When access to the vaccine will be generalised, it will be a different matter," Beaune remarked.

Last week, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said "there are a number of fundamental questions surrounding" the idea and a debate needs to happen in the Netherlands.

And on Monday, shortly after President von der Leyen announced the green pass on Twitter, Sophie Wilmès, the Belgian foreign affairs minister, wrote: "Respect for the principle of non-discrimination is more fundamental than ever since vaccination is not compulsory and access to the vaccine is not yet generalised."

But not everybody shares the same concern. Chris Fearne, Malta's deputy prime minister and health minister, welcomed von der Leyen's plans, saying it was "an added tool to facilitate travel and empower European citizens".

Malta, together with other Southern countries like Spain and Greece, has been at the forefront of the public campaign to introduce immunity passports. The Mediterranean region suffered a steep recession in 2020 and is heavily betting on a summer rebound, triggered by travel and tourism, to revive the damaged economies.

Regardless of the medical, legal and ethical concerns that the EU's green pass is poised to face, the idea appears to have gained too much traction to disappear in its entirety. The endorsement by the Commission president shows that there's enough consensus to test its feasibility and efficacy.

It's still unclear what kind of impact the measure will have on the historically passport-free Schengen Area. Many member states are already demanding documentation, such as a negative coronavirus test or proof of the working capacity, to let non-residents into their territory.

Should an EU-wide pass fail to take hold, governments can always resort to bilateral or multilateral agreements in order to allow their inoculated citizens to travel freely between countries.

Last month, Israel and Greece agreed to establish a scheme to facilitate the movement of vaccinated tourists. A movement that the Israeli Prime Minister described as "without any limitations, no self-isolation, nothing".

Every weekday at 1900 CET, Uncovering Europe brings you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to get an alert for this and other breaking news. It's available on Apple and Android devices.