EU announces new covid certificates: ready, steady, go?

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Are you geared up for a summer holiday in Spain or Greece? Flights booked, preparing for covid tests to allow you to fly and travel across borders? And have you checked that the country you want to visit will let you in? The UK is on the ‘red list’ for many destinations, including in Europe. Will you need a covid certificate?

EU “Digital Green Certificate”

To facilitate travel, the EU has just published its proposed new law on so-called digital green covid certificates. They will be free for all EU citizens wanting to travel in Europe, both in digital or paper formats, with QR codes and a digital signature to prove you are really who you say you are.

According to the EU Commission, the proposed digital or paper document will help to coordinate the opening of borders and reinstate freedom of movement in a trustable, responsible, fair and safe way. But it won’t overrule any country’s specific rules on quarantine or freedom of movement restrictions.

The Commission says that the certificate system has to be fair to avoid discriminating against people who have yet to reach the top of the priority list for jabs (such as in family groups), or who come from countries where the roll-out of the vaccine has been slow.

The Commission also recognises that some people may not be suitable for vaccination for health reasons or may not be able to tolerate the vaccines.

Covid certificate: relevant data only

To be useful, these covid certificates have to be mutually recognised as valid and authentic by all the member states. So only essential, relevant information is to be on them and there will not be centralised databases that link up information about the green certificate holder to their credit score, health records and so on. The World Health Organization has insisted on such an approach.

Accordingly, the certificate will confirm only your covid status: your recent test results (PCR or rapid antigen test), whether and when you’ve had covid, and your vaccination status. That might include how many doses you’ve had and when you were vaccinated. If you’ve had covid, the certificate will show when that was confirmed and by whom.

Apart from that, only your name, date of birth, the state that issued the certificate and your unique identifying number will be included. The certificates will be issued by trusted national authorities, such as hospitals and test centres. They will be valid for 180 days.  

How will covid certificates work?

The aim is to open up the borders inside the EU and to create as uniform a system as possible. Member governments are still discussing how much discretion they will retain individually to decide whether to keep some existing rules, like on quarantine, whether to allow in someone who has only had one not two doses of a vaccine, and whether a valid negative test result (as is now the case) will still be required.

You’ll be able to download the certificate onto your phone or tablet so that you can prove whether, where and when you received a negative test result, and when and if you’ve had two jabs. Member states are expected not to require further testing or quarantine and, if they do, they must explain their reasons to the Commission.

What will it mean for British would-be travellers?

So far so good. Now for the complicated bit. The UK is out of the EU. So all Brits will be treated like ‘third country nationals’ – as the EU refers to non-EU nationals – just like anyone arriving from anywhere else in the world.

At the moment, non-essential travel is generally banned. But Brits living and working in EU states will be eligible for these certificates. If someone has a certificate issued outside the EU by a trusted authority, it will be recognised only if it is compatible and ‘interoperable’ with the EU ones.

And that’s another complication, because the EU opposes the kind of linking up of our private data that the UK government likes and is liable to want to build into any similar certificate scheme here. Nevertheless, the EU has made some detailed proposals public to cover third country nationals and facilitate tourism.

A possible step forward?

The EU and World Health Organization both see these as temporary measures. At their summit at the end of this month, EU leaders will discuss using the certificate as one step in their plans to coordinate re-opening their economies and borders. Then the proposal will go to their ministers and to the European parliament for approval.

So it’s a case of watch this space. The digital green certificate isn’t an open and shut case yet.

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