Catalonia becomes the third region in two weeks to drop the digital vaccine certificate. Four regions, including the Community of Madrid, never implemented it for domestic use.
The regional government of Catalonia, the Generalitat, has stopped using the COVID-19 passport as a means of controlling access to bars, restaurants, gyms and residential homes. Since the arrival of the Omicron variant the certificate is no longer helping to reduce infections, said Patricia Plaja, a government spokesperson. On Friday, the Gereralitat lifted other restrictions such as capacity limitations for public spaces, curfews and limits on the number of people who can gather together. Mask mandates remain in place for now.
For the first time in three months the region’s R0 (R nought) — the basic reproduction ratio that denotes the average number of people a single infected person can be expected to transmit the disease to — is below one. Catalonia is also doing far more testing than any other region of Spain. As El País reported Monday, the north-eastern region accounted for 44% of all the antigen tests done in Spain between January 18-24.
No Longer Fit for Purpose
But the region’s government has called time on the vaccine passport — at least for now. The Generalitat’s Scientific Advisory Committee concluded that the Omicron variant has reached immune escape, meaning that a large part of the population is at risk of catching the virus regardless of whether or not they are fully vaccinated or have had a previous infection. Catalonia is the third region of Spain, after the northern regions of Asturias and Cantabria, to have dropped the digital certificate as a means of limiting access to public spaces and services.
Reinhard Wallmann, the director general of Cantabria’s public health body, said Omicron’s higher contagiousness and the ease with which it evades the protection provided by vaccination meant the vaccine passports no longer served their original purpose — i.e. reducing transmission. But what about one of the other purposes the vaccine passports serve — i.e., to nudge (or coerce) people, especially those in younger age groups, to get a jab?
“You have also to understand that the Green Pass is not necessarily — and that’s not a secret — it’s not necessarily to prevent transmission,” says Cyrille Cohen, the head of Immunology at Bar Ilan University and a member of the advisory committee for vaccines for the Israeli Government. “It’s also to encourage people to get vaccinated. And I don’t want to touch upon the political aspects of the green pass. But this is a reality.”
On those grounds, the vaccine passport has had a degree of success. A peer-reviewed study titled “The Effect of Mandatory COVID-19 Certificates on Vaccine Uptake: Synthetic-control Modeling of Six Countries” found that countries with previously lower-than-average vaccination rates (Israel, France, Italy and Switzerland) saw a surge in vaccinations 20 days before and 40 days after the introduction of vaccine passes. But in countries where the inoculation rates were already quite high, such as Germany, the passes did little to encourage or increase the rates of vaccination.
Like Wallmann, Cohen believes the vaccine passport concept is no longer relevant in the Omicron era and should be phased out. That is already happening in certain regions of Spain. There are now three autonomous communities that have abandoned the vaccine passport for domestic use while another four — Madrid, Catilla y Leon, Castilla la Mancha and Extremadura — never adopted it in the first place. Of the other ten regions that have maintained use of the vaccine passport, some such as Valencia and the Basque Country have extended its use to additional venues.
This is despite growing evidence that vaccine passports may actually be exacerbating rather than reducing transmission of the virus, by propagating a false sense of security among vaccinated people leading many of them to let down their guard. It hardly helped that many governments accompanied their introduction of vaccine passports with a loosening of other public health restrictions, as Belgium did with its so-called Covid Safe Ticket. This led to more contacts and therefore more infections, Belgian microbiologist Emmanuel André told De Morgen.
“[T]he CST led to the opposite of what was expected… because other measures were phased out when it was introduced… Masks, alongside the vaccine and good ventilation, remain one of the most important ways of protecting against the virus. Especially if there is a lot of virus circulating, or if ventilation is inadequate. Especially today, the mask is proportional prevention.”
In Catalonia, the abandonment of the vaccine passport is likely to have a negligible impact on most people’s daily lives, for the following four reasons:
- Vaccine passports were introduced for domestic use in most Spanish regions in December 2021 whereas other EU Member States have been using them domestically for over half a year. This is mainly because Spain’s Supreme Court ruled against its use in August, only to overturn that decision a month later. It then took almost three months for many of Spain’s regional governments to actually adopt legislation allowing them to use the digital documents domestically.
- Catalonia’s regional government has not applied the measures in quite such extreme ways as other governments in Europe. For example, it has not used the vaccine passports to deprive non-holders of the right to work, as Italy’s government did in October. Non-holders in Catalonia have also not been banned from all but essential retailers (as in Germany and Italy) or the terraces and other outdoor areas of bars and restaurants (as in France).
- Many hospitality businesses and workers in Catalonia (and seemingly in other parts of Spain) have made little attempt to enforce the restrictions. Many bars and restaurants do not check customers’ vaccine passport status against their national ID to prove they are who they claim to be. Others have not even been asking to see vaccine passports before serving customers. Since returning from Mexico three weeks ago I have been able to use the restrooms of a number of bars and restaurants without being asked to show a vaccine passport.
- Catalonia has one of the highest vaccination rates in Spain, which in turn has one of the highest vaccination rates in Europe, with over 80% of the population having had at least two vaccines. This was achieved without having to resort to coercion.
Nonetheless, Spain is still registering more than 100,000 cases per day. It is the same story all over Europe, the world’s most vaccinated region on the planet. The EU’s Green Pass has been in use for seven months yet the case counts in most countries are now many orders of magnitude higher than at any time since the pandemic began. Thankfully, deaths are much lower in most places, no doubt in part due to the vaccines. That said, Israel, the first democratic country to roll out vaccine passports, registered more cases in January 2022 than it did in the whole of 2021. Covid-related hospital admissions and deaths are also rising sharply.
This underscores the biggest problem with the vaccine passport: it doesn’t work. Jonay Ojeda, spokesperson for the Spanish Society of Public Health and Healthcare Administration, told El Mundo: “Scientific evidence tells us that the COVID passport has had very little or no effectiveness in reducing infections, especially with the omicron variant,” adding that the vaccine passport is more of a “gimmick than an effective” tool.
I would argue that it is a heck of a lot more than just a gimmick. In many countries the implementation of vaccine passport systems has radically reconfigured the way society functions, making life all but impossible for a large minority of the population. It has unleashed unprecedented levels of segregation and discrimination while hugely exacerbating divisions within society.
Across the EU we have been asked to give up just about everything that matters — or at least should matter: our privacy; control over our own bodies; basic core freedoms such as the ability to earn a living, to feed our families, to travel within our own countries (or in the case of Italy, within our own towns and cities); to receive an education; to sit at a cafe and have a drink with our friends on an outdoor terrace. We have been asked to trade all that in for a digital certificate that offers zero hope of controlling the spread of COVID-19, let alone vanquishing it.
It is now clear that Omicron is evading the vaccines with effortless ease. While boosters may offer a rapid surge in protection against symptoms, their effect seems to wane extremely quickly, as evidenced by the surging caseloads and hospital admissions in Israel, the most boostered country on the planet. Boosting every few months is not a long-term option anyway since it could end up damaging our immune systems, as both the World Health Organization and the European Medicines Agency have recently warned.
No Plan B
In other words, as Yves recently argued in her post “Covid Situation Continuing to Develop Not Necessarily to the Officialdom’s Advantage,” our governments have painted themselves into a very dark corner. Having crafted a public health response that revolves almost exclusively around vaccination and the roll out of their accompanying vaccine passports while ignoring just about every other public health policy option available, many governments in the West are suddenly finding they have no plan B now that plan A — getting vaccines into as many arms as possible — is proving to be a lot less effective than originally hoped.
Public health agencies across Europe have effectively lost control of the virus’ spread. In Spain cases soared so high in early January that the country’s diagnostic labs could not keep up with the demand for tests. Many other countries have suffered an acute shortage of testing kits. Governments are reacting in wildly different ways. While countries like the UK, Denmark and Finland have called time on using vaccine passports domestically (at least for now) as well as bringing to an end many other restrictions (perhaps not so wisely), many countries in the EU, including the three biggest economies, Germany, France and Italy, are doubling down on vaccine passport restrictions.