Europe seeks to restart travel with COVID 'pass' despite vaccine squeeze

Gabriela Baczynska, Michaela Cabrera and Anna Valderrama
·3-min read

By Gabriela Baczynska, Michaela Cabrera and Anna Valderrama

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union will on Wednesday unveil a COVID-19 pass to allow free travel this summer and support the struggling tourism sector despite the bloc's sluggish vaccination campaign and the risks posed by new coronavirus variants.

The EU's executive European Commission will propose creating a bloc-wide "green digital certificate" that would combine information on vaccination, COVID-19 tests and recovery from the disease to allow people to take flights and cross borders.

"It will allow everyone from the European Union to come and visit us with security," said Alfonso Lopez, director of The Hat hotel and Villa Verbena restaurant in Madrid.

"I think it will help us have a reasonable summer season," he said, calling last summer "an absolute disaster".

In Paris, 63-year-old pensioner Patrick Job - sporting a lapel pin reading: "I am vaccinated against COVID-19" - looked forward to travelling again after more than a year of lockdowns and restrictions that have thrust Europe into a record economic recession.

"A COVID-19 health pass would allow us to travel, to get back a little bit of freedom. And to be able to see other things, at least to go on holiday for a few days, or on a weekend," Job said while walking his dog.

The Commission hopes EU member states and the bloc's parliament will agree on the proposal in June, in time for the summer season.

SLOW START

Seeking a "safe and sustainable reopening" for Europe, the Commission will also tell EU countries to exempt cross-border workers and freight transport from strict travel restrictions and offer a joint gateway for national passenger location forms.

Vaccination campaigns have got off to a slow start in many EU countries due to scarce supply and with fears of new coronavirus variants spreading, the 27 countries face an uphill battle agreeing shared standards for reopening.

Greece has said it would welcome this summer all those vaccinated against COVID-19, those who have antibodies or test negative, while France announced an easing of some travel restrictions from Australia, New Zealand, Britain and other countries.

But Belgium and Germany have warned against discriminating against those who refuse or cannot get vaccinated, meaning EU leaders will have a heated discussion on what rights to attach to the COVID-19 certificates when they meet next week.

The World Health Organization has advised against requiring vaccine certification as a precondition for international travel.

"We have to be exceptionally careful because right now we are dealing with a tremendously iniquitous situation in the world... where the likelihood of you being offered or getting a vaccine is very much to do with the country you are living in," Mike Ryan, WHO's top emergency expert, said on Monday.

In another example of the EU struggling to stick to a joint approach, Belgium, Germany, Sweden and Denmark snubbed the Commission's latest request to ease unilateral travel and border curbs that go beyond what the bloc prescribes.

In some EU countries, vaccine scepticism is also running high.

One resident, Manuel Jaen, in Spain's Gran Canaria said of the EU's travel plans: "I am totally against this health card they want to impose on us because I don't believe in vaccines."

(Additional reporting by Marine Strauss in Brussels, Stephanie Nebehay and Cecile Mantovani in Geneva, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Janet Lawrence)