(EURO NEWS) – The European Commission’s proposal for a vaccine passport – officially called the Digital Green Pass – faces an uphill battle to get off the ground in time for the summer season.
Concerns related to fundamental rights, discrimination, data privacy, technological access and forgery are poised to become stumbling blocks for the innovative cross-border instrument, the likes of which has never been tried before in the European Union.
After weeks of increasing pressure from tourism-reliant countries, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on Monday that her team will soon put forward a draft law to introduce an EU-wide pass.
A spokesperson later said the objective of the pass will be to facilitate “safe and free movement in the EU” and will apply for both work and tourism.
The concrete details of the proposal will be unveiled later this month and will be followed by, at least, three months of technical work.
Given the notoriously intricate decision-making machinery of the EU, the most optimistic scenario to have the system in place appears to be late June or early July.
What has been already disclosed is that the EU instrument will be a more inclusive version of the much-discussed vaccination passport: besides proof on inoculation, the green pass will also include results of previous COVID-19 tests for those who haven’t yet got the jab and medical statements for those who have recovered from the disease (and are presumed to be protected by temporary antibodies).
The pass “will respect data protection, security and privacy”, von der Leyen said in her brief announcement.
But all these guarantees might not be enough to quell the doubts and reticence of critics who argue that such certificates will inevitably split citizens into two classes: the inoculated and the vulnerable.
‘Not everything is in place yet’
In early February, the World Health Organization (WHO) published an interim position paper establishing its unambiguous opposition against “proof of COVID-19 vaccination for international travel as a condition for departure or entry”.
The WHO cited a list of scientific, ethical, legal and technological considerations to dissuade governments from moving forward with the idea. The body considers “there are still critical unknowns regarding the efficacy of vaccination” such as how much jabs limit the transmission of the virus, how much they protect against asymptomatic infection and how long the immunity lasts.
“Considering that there is limited availability of vaccines, preferential vaccination of travellers could result in inadequate supplies of vaccines for priority populations considered at high risk of severe COVID-19 disease,” WHO concluded.
“WHO also recommends that people who are vaccinated should not be exempt from complying with other travel risk-reduction measures.”
Days later, the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of sciences, released a report laying out 12 criteria for the development and use of COVID-19 vaccine passports. The criteria proposed certificates that are internationally standardised, based on defined uses, secure for personal data, portable, affordable and legal.
“We determined that vaccine passports or certificates will be feasible, but not everything is in place yet,” professor Melinda Mills, from the University of Oxford and a lead author of the report, told Euronews.
“We know that vaccines protect people against serious illness, but what we don’t know is the duration of immunity, so you would have to have some sort of expiry date on these [passports],” she added.
“Another question is about the emerging variants. There’s some preliminary evidence that shows some of the vaccines might be compromised by this, so you’ll actually have to think about the ability to revoke these [passports].”
Professor Mills points out that the European Union has set a target to inoculate 70% of the entire adult population by the summer, which could potentially leave 30% of EU citizens (around 135 million people) at risk of being discriminated against at the border.
Access to vaccination is contingent upon factors such as age, gender, race and professional status and is widely uneven across the bloc: Malta and Denmark are leading the race, while Bulgaria and Latvia lag behind. Non-discrimination on the basis of nationality is a defining value of European integration.
“Young people will probably be the last in line in many countries. And there are also people that can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons: pregnant women, people with allergies. And what about vaccine hesitancy?” Mills wonders.
“If you roll this out, it could inadvertently exclude large parts of the population.”
The professors also alert that digital passports could be hacked and forged, and even used for malicious tracking and commercial purposes. “People will also want to know, is this secure?”
The digital divide
Another barrier that could partially derail the European Commission’s plan is the digital divide among EU countries and citizens.
As von der Leyen said, the green pass will be digital. Although access to this technology is widespread across the bloc, it is far from universal and varies with age, geography and income.
According to Eurostat, in 2019 almost three quarters (73 %) of the EU-27 adult population used a mobile device such as a mobile phone or portable computer (including laptops and tablets) to connect to the internet when away from home or work. The share among young people aged 16-29 years was higher, standing at 93%.