EU to Issue COVID-19 Vaccine Passport Amid Sluggish Rollout

The European Commission is working on a digital certificate that will enable free travel, drawing support from Chancellor Sebastian Kurz despite slow inoculation rates.

Later this month, the European Commission will propose a vaccination certificate, called a “Digital Green Pass,” which will enable free mobility within the European Union. The exact details are still being hashed out. 

“The Digital Green Pass should facilitate Europeans’ lives,” commission president Ursula von der Leyen wrote on Twitter. “The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the European Union or abroad — for work or tourism.” The pass, which is expected to launch by summer, will also provide other information, such as recent COVID test results or proof of immunity, she said. 

Media reports suggest that the passport will be a digital certificate, available as a mobile app or a personalized QR code. It will likely resemble Israel’s “green pass,” a mobile app granted to individuals a week after receiving their second jab, which was released last week following the vaccination of roughly half of Israel’s population. The certificate grants exclusive access to gyms, hotels, theaters, concerts and will permit indoor dining in restaurants and bars once they reopen. Under 16-year-olds who are not yet cleared to receive the vaccine can enter with a negative test result. 

The hospitality industry as well as tourism-dependent nations like Greece and Cyprus have been pushing for such a pass for some time, as it would most likely allow travelers to skip the 14-day quarantine upon arrival. Fritz Joussen, CEO of the German tour operator TUI, said, “Travel in Europe will be possible in Summer 2021 – safely and responsibly.”  

The Price of Freedom

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is among the proponents. “We want an EU-wide Green Passport which would allow one to travel freely, be on the road without restrictions for business and go on vacation, as well as finally enjoy gastronomy, culture, events and other things again,” he said in a press briefing. Such a “green pass” could eventually replace the “entry tests” that are currently required at hairdressers in Austria.

However, the vaccine passport system has also sparked controversy. Given Europe’s strict data protection laws, the legal ramifications of the certificate must be considered. Protecting medical data is a central component of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) mandate. 

The passport system also raises ethical concerns. The World Health Organization (WHO) and some European countries have criticized the document’s discriminating nature: Since vaccination is voluntary and currently a privilege, the proposed “green pass” could restrict personal freedom, raising considerable concerns of a two-class society. It is also unclear whether the vaccine passport will be mandatory. Could an employer demand it?  

In light of Europe’s slow vaccine rollout, France and Germany believe the idea is premature. “In the future, it will certainly be good to have such a certificate, but that will not mean that only those who have such a passport will be able to travel,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel. French Health Minister Olivier Verán stated that it was too early to discuss a green pass.

There is some truth to this. With only 5% of its population inoculated, Europe’s vaccine plan is still lagging behind. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) is expected to approve the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, the continent’s fourth, on March 11; however, this will not make up for the supply problems, unreliable partners, and slow authorization process that have delayed Europe’s rollout. Therefore, von der Leyen has scaled back her ambitious goal of achieving full immunization by September: Last month, she announced that Europe now aims to vaccinate 70% of its adult population by the end of summer.

Lost in Production

Austria’s vaccine rollout has been similarly sluggish. Only 15% of individuals between the ages 75-85 and a mere 5% of the high-risk group of 65-75-year-olds have been inoculated. Therefore, Austria faces an additional problem: The vaccines are sitting around unused warehouses. Only 683,000 of the 823,000 available doses have been administered, meaning roughly 139,000, or 17%, of doses are currently unused.

Chancellor Kurz has blamed the federal states for this mess. However, state officials like Vienna’s Health Councilor Peter Hacker have dismissed the criticism, arguing that every delivered dose is administered. Hacker suspects that the doses were “requested,” meaning ordered from the federal procurement company, but never delivered. Vienna is the first state to move onto the next vaccine phase and will start inoculating its 35,000 teachers and childcare providers this week.   

Meanwhile, Kurz is striving to increase Austria’s vaccine stockpile: He plans to travel to Israel on Thursday with Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and discuss a joint manufacturing campaign. By doing so, Austria and Denmark are joining a growing list of countries undermining the EU’s vaccine pact.

Kurz told the German tabloid Bild that he no longer wants to be “dependent” on the bloc for vaccines. “We agreed in the summer that vaccines from the EU for member states would be procured in good time and approved quickly,” Kurz said.“Although this approach was fundamentally correct, the EMA is too slow in approving vaccines and there are delivery bottlenecks from pharmaceutical companies.” 

The Chancellor is also trying to get the ball rolling at home. The federal government recently launched a “Vaccine Production Taskforce,” which will devise plans to produce vaccines –or at least their components – with the nation’s existing production facilities. These vaccines would not be just for Austria, “but for the whole world,” said Economics Minister Margarete Schramböck, who is heading the initiative. Kurz believes domestic production could “make a significant contribution” and jump-start an “international corporation for manufacturing vaccines,” citing Israel’s Netanyahu alongside Denmark’s Frederiksen. 

“We’re not starting from scratch,” said Kurz. “The three of us are starting this, but there is interest from other countries.”

Amina Frassl
Amina is Metropole's former online content manager. She is a contributing writer, focusing on current news and politics. She recently received her Bachelors' degree in journalism and politics from New York University and is currently pursuing her Masters' in international affairs at Johns Hopkins SAIS.

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