EU Proposes Opening to Fully Vaccinated Non-Essential Travelers; The Catch: Proving Vaccine Status

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The European Union  (EU) today floated a proposal to allow some travellers full-vaccinated against COVID-19 to enter the bloc, more than a year after slamming shut entry from most non-EU visitors.

Currently, the EU only allows non-essential travel from seven countries with extremely low infection rates: Australia, China, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand.

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen presented the new framework. Axios  reports that full approval by EU member states could occur by May 7. The proposal includes an ’emergency brake mechanism,’ which would allow the EU to announce future restrictions, in the event of a surge in COVID-19 cases from a country. Recently, as a response to the calamitous surge in Indian cases, many countries, including Australia, the UK, and the U.S., have banned all incoming flights from India.

The EU is trying to develop a coordinated if not uniform  response across the 27 member states to allow for non-essential – aka tourist –  travel from non-EU countries, but each EU member state sets its own border  policy, and the bloc has struggled to achieve consensus on the issue.

Tourist Industry Pressure

The new EU measures are a response to pressure from its tourist industry, which has been decimated by the pandemic.

The Local It reports that some EU member states had been exploring their own reopening plans before the EU proposal was floated:

Several EU member states have already announced their own plans for reopening, including France which proposes allowing all vaccinated tourists from outside the EU from June 9th, and Spain which is talking to the UK government directly about access for British tourists this summer.

Greece was planning on opening up to full-vaccinated or COVID-tested travellers from mid-May, according to CNN:.

According to the Commission’s press release:

The Commission proposes that Member States lift restrictions on non-essential travel for vaccinated persons travelling to the EU. This reflects the latest scientific advice showing that vaccination considerably helps to break the transmission chain.

Member States should allow travel into the EU of those people who have received, at least 14 days before arrival, the last recommended dose of a vaccine having received marketing authorisation in the EU. Member States could also extend this to those vaccinated with a vaccine having completed the WHO emergency use listing process. In addition, if Member States decide to waive the requirements to present a negative PCR test and/or to undergo quarantine for vaccinated persons on their territory, they should also waive such requirements for vacccinated travellers from outside the EU.

Jerri-Lynn here. The four vaccines currently licensed  for use in the EU are Johnson & Johnson  Moderna, Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer BioNTech.

Emergency Brake Mechanism

The proposal allows the EU to close borders again quickly if the epidemiological situation of a country worsens. From the press release:

When the epidemiological situation of a non-EU country worsens quickly and in particular if a variant of concern or interest is detected, a Member State can urgently and temporarily suspend all inbound travel by non-EU citizens resident in such a country. The only exceptions in this case would be healthcare professionals, transport personnel, diplomats, transit passengers, those travelling for imperative family reasons, seafarers, and persons in need of international protection or for other humanitarian reasons. Such travellers should be subject to strict testing and quarantine arrangements even if they have been vaccinated.

When a Member State applies such restrictions, the Member States meeting within the Council structures should review the situation together in a coordinated manner and in close cooperation with the Commission, and they should continue doing so at least every 2 weeks.

How Would Travelers Prove They’ve Been Vaccinated?

So, does this mean U.S. travelers can book their European holiday? Well, as they say, it’s complicated.

The Commission is banking on setting up a vaccine passport system – the Digital Green Certificate, proposed on 17 March but not yet implemented. As per the press release:

This should be facilitated once the Digital Green Certificate becomes operational, in line with the rules the Commission proposed on 17 March. In particular, travellers should be able to prove their vaccination status with a Digital Green Certificate issued by Member States’ authorities on an individual basis, or with another certificate recognised as equivalent by virtue of a Commission adequacy decision.

Until the Digital Green Certificate is operational, Member States should be able to accept certificates from non-EU countries based on national law, taking into account the ability to verify the authenticity, validity and integrity of the certificate and whether it contains all relevant data. [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]

Member States could consider setting up a portal allowing travellers to ask for the recognition of a vaccination certificate issued by a non-EU country as reliable proof of vaccination and/or for the issuance of a Digital Green Certificate.

Children who are excluded from vaccination should be able to travel with their vaccinated parents if they have a negative PCR COVID-19 test taken at the earliest 72 hours before arrival area. In these cases, Member States could require additional testing after arrival.

Forgery Possibilities?

Alas, the U.S. only currently issues a handwritten, cardboard COVID-19 Vaccination Record Card. –  and I don’t know how one would go about verifying its validity, on-line or otherwise. This is a system that appears tailor-made for abuse, and I recall seeing a headline – which I’ve not yet been able to find again – under which some U.S. anti-vaxxers are encouraging the forging of these vaccination records. That would seem ridiculously easy to do, well within the capacity of any minimally competent fourteen year old to replicate.

There are whispers that plans are afoot to develop a different U.S. system.  Axios notes:

The U.S. is being closely consulted on the European passport, so any future American system will likely use similar protocols.

With the Digital Green Certificate under development – and the U.S. as well as other countries as yet having no verifiable digital systems – what’s a potential tourist hoping to visit the EU to do?  It would seem s/he must rely on the procedures individual member states implement for accepting vaccination certificates. According to Forbes:

It’s unclear how such a system will work for tourists from countries like the U.S., which currently does not issue a national Covid-19 vaccination certificate, and is unlikely to do so in the future. The current proposal is also limited to proof of vaccination, whereas the Digital Green Certificate will also allow travelers to submit a recent Covid negative test result or proof that they have recently recovered from the disease.

Changing Criteria to Qualify for Safe Country List

In the same press release, the EU proposes changing the criteria for inclusion in the safe country list, for which only seven countries currently qualify:

Non-essential travel regardless of individual vaccination status is currently permitted from 7 countries with a good epidemiological situation. This list is decided by the Council on the basis of epidemiological criteria contained in the current recommendation.

The Commission is proposing to amend the criteria to take into account the mounting evidence of the positive impact of vaccination campaigns. The proposal is to increase the threshold of 14-day cumulative COVID-19 case notification rate from 25 to 100. This remains considerably below the current EU average, which is over 420. [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]

So, under the current procedures, that means travellers from the UK would qualify, but not the U.S. According to CNN:

In the latest data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the United States has a notification rate of 258 so would not be added to the safe travel list, but the UK which has a rate of 47, would be considered under the new rules.

The EU foresees that the list of qualifying countries would expand. According to the press release:

The adapted threshold should allow the Council to expand the list of countries from which non-essential travel is permitted regardless of vaccination status, subject to health-related measures such as testing and/or quarantine. As now, the Council should review this list at least every 2 weeks.

The Bottom Line

As much as I want to see the world return to a pre-pandemic normal, magical thinking won’t make that so. Given what’s happening in India and Brazil, I think the EU is being wildly optimistic in opening up to visitors again. Not to mention banking on vaccines as being a more secure guarantee that visitors are COVID-free and pose no transmission risk than is warranted.

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    1. Ian Ollmann

      On the flip side, more chaos and more assumption of vaccination as the primary health security device may encourage the laggars to move forward with vaccination.

      1. Dwight

        Perhaps, but many people getting vaccinated in large part to gain ability to travel have already been vaccinated, and this great article suggests they may find that their paper proof of vaccination is not accepted by other countries.

  1. Jeff W

    “…I recall seeing a headline – which I’ve not yet been able to find again – under which some U.S. anti-vaxxers are encouraging the forging of these vaccination records.”

    Pro-Trump, anti-vaccine websites urging people to forge COVID-19 vaccination cards, says CDC [The Hill]

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Thank you. i knew I’d seen reference to this somewhere, probably when I was compiling links.

  2. flora

    Will they accept Russia pharm or China pharm or Cuba pharm vaccinations? If not, what then? China is a large tourist contingent to Europe.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      The EU’s done an elegant workaround on that, at least as far as China’s concerned. I’m chuckling in admiration.

      China is currently one of the seven countries on the safe list because of their ‘good epidemiological situation’. So its citizens can currently visit the EU – and will be able to continue to do so ‘regardless of individual vaccination status’, after this proposed change, provided China remains on the safe list. I’ve quoted the relevant language above in the post.

      As to others who might take the Chinese or Russian jabs, again from above, member states have discretion to recognise options other than the ‘vaccine[s] having received marketing authorisation in the EU’, e.g., currently the four western vaccines I mentioned, to include: ‘Member States could also extend this to those vaccinated with a vaccine having completed the WHO emergency use listing process.’

    2. Alex

      Greece is going to recognise Sputnik before the tourist season starts. The vaccination certificate is just a booklet with a few stamps which would be very easy to forge. I think you can verify it online but it would definitely be a technological challenge to use it for another country to check incoming tourists.

      Here in Israel they plan to open the tourist season in May too for vaccinated travellers but there are no details on how they are going to verify it.

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      I got jabbed in NY and didn’t know about this pass. But I’ll surely investigate that option now. Thanks!

  3. enoughisenough

    I get my second shot this week, and am planning to take photos of the shot happening, and the signing of the card.
    Then one of me holding the card in front of the clinic.

  4. David in Santa Cruz

    I know that it’s chaos here in California. The paper CDC card is a joke, as is our system that prioritizes having “health insurance” over the actual delivery of “health care.”

    The California public/private “My Turn” website texted that I was eligible for vaccine a month before the medical group that accepts my insurance had sufficient doses for me to make an online appointment with them. However, through the neighborhood grapevine I was able to get an appointment at a smaller medical group that was attempting to vaccinate under-served populations and who had an abundance of unused vaccine. After a brief back-and-forth that began with “we only serve our own patients” but quickly became, “can you be here in 20 minutes?” I took the shots!

    Things became hilarious from there. Shortly after my first shot I received an “Out-of-Network” statement from my insurer stating that I had received “anesthesia” from the competing medical group and denying coverage! I spent 45 minutes on the telephone attempting to straighten that out. Fortunately the person on the phone had a good sense of humor about it, and the medical coding didn’t appear to be an out-and-out fraud.

    Then I contacted my primary-care physician’s office with the dates and lot-numbers of my vaccinations (Moderna). I got a message back from his medical assistant that they couldn’t take my word for it, but that the “My Turn” California website would be sending-out information to providers about who had received vaccine. I did make my mark on multiple lines of a “consent” form, so hopefully HIPPA didn’t create a Black-Box for my vaccination information.

    I’ll be surprised if anyone at the EU border is going to be willing to accept the easily-forged paper CDC card as proof of anything, but I’m carrying a photo of it on my mobile for now…

  5. David

    These are, of course, only Commission proposals, and the Commission and its leader have not impressed many people during the Covid crisis. Health is technically a shared competence between the Commission and member states, but in practice the Commission has only played a very small role in the past, and has, by national standards, a tiny budget. It’s actual responsibilities under Article 168 of the TFEU are here.
    What Von der Leyen is trying to do here, apart from hoping to restore some credibility and get the Commission back into the game, is to avoid total chaos this summer, as nations make and apply different sets of rules. This will happen in any case, because, whilst some countries like Greece are desperate for tourism to restart, others, like Germany and France are much more reserved. The best the Commission can hope for (and probably what they are trying to achieve) is broad agreement on principles, with quite a lot of wriggle room for nations on specific issues. That, and the Commission’s historic distaste for border controls and restrictions on movement. It wants “no borders” back as soon as possible, and that can only happen if member states have closely aligned policies.

    It’s likely that some form of electronic passport will be needed, probably in multiple languages, and capable of being read in a standard format. The major states will try to insist on this. However, if you are coming from outside the EU this summer be very careful, especially if you are hoping to “do” Europe. It’s by no means certain that even the major tourist countries will all be applying exactly the same rules.

  6. R

    A colleague advises a company providing cybersecurity infrastructure to a European vaccine passport project, so we have a ringside seat on this. Every country is doing its own thing. France has launched its own solution, after a massive investment in strengthening the team that originally screwed up their Covid tracking app. The UK is planning to hand the work to its unrestructured NHSX team, which screwed up the UK tracking app. Switzerland has two projects (presumably one in Romance and one in Germanic languages, or one for the taxman and one for your own records). Italy has a central project but it is late. You couldn’t make it up.

    The Excelsior Pass travails in New York state cannot be helping IBM in Europe:

  7. R

    PS: all we get in the UK is a business card-sized piece of paper, with date and lot number written on it and space to write your own name on afterwards!

    You could imagine a GATTACA style-plot where the billionaire vaccine refusnik sends some poor mule for his shots – you would hope there would be a divine justice meted….

    1. Yves Smith

      The card was never intended to be proof of vaccination for third parties. Any such third party document is extremely problematic, to put it mildly, under the privacy and civil rights laws of many states and even cities. Requiring someone to produce such a record would be illegal in Denver, for instance.

  8. tegnost

    If indeed there turns out to be a long term negative effect of the vaccines the brunt of those will be on the PMC and their attendants (of which i am one), the seemingly indispensable caste becoming marginalized will have a profound impact. I have had one dose of moderna and I rank it pretty high up on my list of risky choices made over my lifetime especially considering that Bill Gates et al. are so itching to own every genetic component and process this really seems as always to be primarily about ownership and money, and there is no question that wall st. sees lots of people dying, even or especially because they are wealthy PMC, as a good thing.

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