Covid certificate comes into force across Europe despite Delta variant and airline industry fear

More than twenty countries now recognise or issue these digital or paper documents

4 min
A screen announces flights to El Prat airport, in an image from before the outbreak of the covid -19.

BrusselsThis Thursday the legislation on the use of the European Union's covid certificate officially comes into force across Europe. Although there are more than twenty EU member countries and others such as Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein that already use it, the official date for the law to come into force is July 1. The date makes explicit the will of this mechanism to save summer, both from the economic point of view and from the more social side, after a year of strict restrictions on mobility. And finally the day has come, but not without obstacles in sight. The spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus is putting authorities across Europe and the world on alert, and airlines and airports across the continent are complaining that the implementation of the certificate could lead to chaos in high season if it is not done correctly.

The covid vaccination certificate is a digital or paper QR code that needs to be readable across Europe to provide harmonised information on vaccines administered, PCR or antigen tests, or to prove that the disease has been overcome. The different state authorities (be they hospitals, testing centres or other bodies) have had almost two months to prepare technically to issue them. According to data from the European Commission, Cyprus, Romania, Ireland, Hungary, the Netherlands and Sweden have not yet put it into operation but are technically ready. Only Ireland, according to Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders, is having problems to activate it in time.

Airports' and airlines' warning

But the associations that bring together Europe's major airports and airlines - who were also one of the main lobby groups calling for a tool like the certificate - sent a letter to the main EU leaders of the European Union, warning that not everything was as close to ready as it should be. ACI airport group (which includes is El Prat, Barajas and Girona-Costa Brava) and airline associations A4E, IATA and ERA warn that there are a dozen "different approaches" from member states in managing the validation of the certificate, which can generate eternal queues and chaos at airports. What they ask is that the verification process is not done at the airport but that it is prior. "Check-in times have increased by 500%, to twelve minutes per passenger, and the current situation threatens the success of the recovery of air travel this summer," says the letter: "The verification of the certificate must be done well before departure and before passengers arrive at the airport, together with passenger location forms and without duplicate checks". Commissioner Reynders "is aware" of these concerns, he said, but reminded the airline industry that it is much better to have one certificate than 27.

Making the certificate a reality was not easy. Countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy began pushing for what was described as a vaccination passport as early as the beginning of the year with the clear objective of saving the summer season, a time of year that accounts for a significant portion of their economies, which are highly dependent on tourism. A summer in which each country of entry or exit could demand PCRs, antigens, vaccines or other proof of being disease free with different formats and criteria did not seem sustainable. But right from the start they were met with reticence from countries like Germany, which are the embodiment of prudence, and which feared that the vaccines would not be sufficiently effective against the new variants of the coronavirus that have been appearing. Even so, the European Commission, convinced of the need to recover one of the most precious tangible values of the Union, free movement, supported the countries of the South and presented a proposal for a certificate that finally won over governments and MEPs in May, just in time to finalise all the technical details by July.

Delta variant sets alarm bells ringing

The certificate makes it easier to open doors, but does not open them automatically. In the midst of a pandemic health crisis, border management is the responsibility of each country and no matter how hard Brussels tries to coordinate measures, governments are very jealous of their powers and, of course, their ability to keep the epidemiological situation at bay. This is why the digital certificate legislation implies a commitment to avoid as much as possible imposing additional restrictions on people who have the document and especially on those who are vaccinated, but there is an emergency backstop that can be activated to re-restrict mobility should the epidemiological situation worsen. The impact of the Delta variant could be an example.

Commissioner Reynders has reminded on Wednesday that in order to re-implement mobility restrictions, the European Commission would have to be notified beforehand and they would have to be properly justified. For example, Germany has decided to impose restrictions on travellers from Portugal and according to the certificate legislation that comes into force Thursday this would only be possible if it is justified before the EU in a correct way.

To be clear, the vaccination certificate must always be used taking into account the common color map of the European Union, which sets the criteria for quarantine or additional restrictions. It is also advisable to always consult the website to know the rules for each country (for example, it may be that one accepts antigens but not the other) and the websites of each ministry or government, both departure and arrival.