EU COVID travel certificates go into effect

At the Gare du Nord train station in Paris, a long line of passengers disembarked from the high speed train from Brussels Thursday and shuffled up to police officers blocking access to the exit.

Each person pulled out IDs as well as printouts or smartphone apps with scannable QR codes showing that they’ve been tested for COVID, vaccinated or have had the disease, before being allowed into the French capital.

It’s a sign that the first day of the EU’s COVID certificates is in full swing. The European Commission, which raced to get them in place by the summer, celebrated the launch.

“The European Union is delivering for its citizens,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement. “We are helping Europeans get back the freedom they value and cherish so much.”

All countries are now connected to an online “gateway” that allows authorities to verify the data in the certificates, and all but one EU member country — Ireland — are now issuing the documents.

The mechanism for issuing certificates isn’t fully operational yet in Slovakia, Denmark, Spain, Finland, Malta and Sweden, a Commission spokesperson said Thursday. But most EU countries launched the certificates early, and according to the Commission, over 200 million passes have already been generated.

In principle, the passes help travelers circumnavigate arduous testing and quarantine requirements, although countries are still free to restrict travel if they feel the protection of public health calls for it.

In an updated travel guidance, EU countries agreed that travelers able to prove they have immunity thanks to a full vaccination or a recent COVID infection should be freed from such restrictions. For most other travelers, a negative pre-departure test should be enough to be considered safe, depending on the health risk in the area from where they’re coming.

But getting the paperwork into place doesn’t mean that the problems are all gone.

Germany this week listed Portugal as a “virus variant area” following an increase in infections from the Delta variant of the coronavirus. The label triggered a ban on travel to Germany for foreigners and tight restrictions for German residents returning home from Portugal, regardless of their vaccination status.

Germany said it was doing so under an “emergency brake” process, which is a part of the travel guidance, allowing countries to revive restrictions — even for vaccinated travelers — if the spread of a new mutation calls for it.

The Commission argues countries should rely on testing and quarantine measures rather than travel bans, and a spokesperson said Germany’s measure “did not seem to be fully in line” with the bloc’s travel guidance.

There are fears that more countries could trigger such emergency brakes, amid concerns about new mutations. Belgium is reportedly also considering restricting travel from Portugal in a bid to slow the spread of the highly contagious so-called Delta variant.

Germany’s Health Minister Jens Spahn said Thursday that Berlin’s restrictions on travel from Portugal as well as the U.K. could be short-lived, amid expectations that the Delta variant will be dominant in Germany later this month. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control predicted that by the end of August, 90 percent of EU infections could be due to the variant.

Despite qualms about Germany’s travel restrictions, the glass is “90 percent full,” a Commission spokesperson said Thursday. “If you consider that we have not received from any other member states information at this stage that they would intend to impose further restrictions on certificate-holders.”

Teething troubles

The travel industry is warning of “major operational risks” in the way countries implement COVID certificate checks, especially the danger of creating long queues that come with health risks of their own.

But Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary said Thursday that he expects traffic to be “largely uninterrupted.” He did complain about his home country of Ireland, which delayed the certificates until July 19.

“Are we supposed to tell [travelers] in Charleroi that they can’t fly to Dublin? Or are we bringing them in to Dublin and then you tell them when they arrive in Dublin that because they’ve got a digital green certificate that says they’re vaccinated, you’re not going to accept it?” he asked.

For now, only EU countries, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein are signed up to the EU’s COVID certificates. Work with Switzerland is “in progress” and expected to conclude “in the very near future,” a Commission spokesperson said. There are also plans to recognize other countries’ certificates; in the meantime, it’s up to national authorities to screen travelers’ proof of vaccination.

That has already led to confusion for British tourists trying to travel to Malta with a digital vaccination pass — but were asked for a paper version instead.

Jan Cienski contributed reporting from Paris.



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