European governments are split over whether to introduce vaccine passports with the tourist-dependent southern member states of the bloc touting them as a possible way to reopen international borders and encourage a resumption of travel.
Greece's Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has been at the head of a pack of national leaders urging the European Commission to start preparing a framework for vaccine certificates. Last week he urged the EC to shape "a common understanding on how a vaccination certificate should be structured so as to be accepted in all Member States."
Proof of vaccination could help countries open up faster, say Europe's airlines, hoteliers and the continent's hard-struck travel agencies.
Last week, Zurab Pololikashvili, secretary general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, called for countries to adopt digital vaccination passports, which he said would get the world traveling again. "Vaccines must be part of a wider, coordinated approach that includes certificates and passes for safe cross-border travel," he told a global tourism gathering in Madrid.
But EU privacy activists are sounding the alarm and epidemiologists warn travelers bearing a document verifying they have been inoculated may still get infected and be able to spread the virus.
The issue of vaccination certificates was discussed last Thursday by EU leaders, but there was reluctance to commit to any plans. EU officials say there are a number of critical questions that need answering first, including whether vaccinated people can still spread the virus. There are also worries about variants diminishing the effectiveness of the current vaccines.
Also, there are disagreements over what rules should apply to travelers who received vaccines not approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA). Because of insufficient supplies of the Johnson/Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which have been approved by the EMA, a frustrated Hungary is purchasing supplies of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine. "For an agreement on the standards, other summits will be needed," a senior EU official said.
Another official told the EU Observer newspaper: "We can agree in principle that we should work on common standards, and interoperability. We want to avoid things being blocked because vaccines are not recognized in one particular country."
Maros Sefcovic, a European Commission vice president, has said vaccination could become a condition for travel, like current requirements in many countries for a negative test. "There will be different options how we handle travel," he said last week. He said: "the possibility of the electronic vaccination certificate could be added."
A new social divide
With the vaccine rollout likely to take months, rights campaigners, and some politicians, fear vaccine passports will fuel more social divisions and split people between the inoculated haves and unvaccinated have-nots, with inequities to vaccine access being overlooked. Vaccine passports could entrench inequality, warn rights campaigners.
People in poorer countries are unlikely to get vaccinated until next year at the earliest and possibly in the even more distant future, blocking them from travel and access to employment opportunities outside their home countries, in the event vaccines certificates are required, they say.
Privacy advocates warn that vaccines certificates would mark another major step in personal health data being digitized and used by governments to add to their stores of personal information held on citizens.
In outlining his proposal for a vaccine passport, Mitsotakis said in an opinion article posted on the Brussels-based Euractiv news-site that he wants Europe to create a "fast travel lane" that would help to minimize delays for the inoculated. But he said his intention is "not to divide Europeans into two categories."
"People will rightly ask if this could lead to some kind of curtailment of freedom to travel?" He wrote. "No, it will not. We should not confuse a vaccination certificate with a travel passport. Our aim is not to divide Europeans into two categories, those who are vaccinated and those who aren't. Instead we want to create a fast travel lane for those with a digitally standardized certificate."
The Greek leader said that those who wish to travel, but have not been vaccinated, should still be able to do so but should be obliged to get tested before traveling and to be tested on arrival and, when appropriate, quarantined. Cyprus and Malta are backing the introduction of such certificates, and, too, Italy and Spain.
Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez told RNE national radio: "Vaccine certification is something we are going towards inevitably. It will be a very important element to guarantee a safe return to mobility." But earlier last week, Reyes Maroto, Spain's trade and tourism minister, expressed a note of caution, saying, "Reaching immunity is a key milestone to generate confidence to travel."
British air carriers and hoteliers have also been urging the country's ruling Conservatives to consider vaccine certificates. And the country's Daily Telegraph newspaper reported Sunday that Prime Minister Boris Johnson' government is funding at least eight different companies to develop prototypes and schemes for vaccine passport cards. Ministers, though, say there are "no plans" for a roll-out across the country.
And England's deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, has publicly warned that people who have received a vaccine could still pass the virus on to others. That warning has been echoed by Ursula Von der Leyen, the European Commission president, who has told EU lawmakers that there were concerns over whether those inoculated could still carry and transmit the coronavirus and how long protection lasts. She also worried about "what alternatives do you offer to those who have legitimate reasons for not getting the vaccine?"
Last November, there was a public backlash in Australia when flag-carrier Qantas disclosed it was considering requiring vaccination passports for passengers.