Even though the World Health Organisation says it discourages rules that require proof of Covid-19 vaccination as a condition for departure or entry in a country, the European Union is right in pushing ahead with just such a plan for safe travel as it attempts to rescue its crucial summer tourist season.
A great deal about the novel coronavirus and Covid-19 pandemic still needs to be discovered, but one thing is crystal clear: The tourism industry is desperate for a summer return to some semblance of normalcy. Europe, with a stunning range of world heritage sites, azure Mediterranean waters and beckoning beaches, is among the regions hit hardest.
The industry needs a resurgent summer or the damage could be long lasting. Tourist-related businesses able to weather the shutdown over the past 12 months — including a summer peak season that was mostly lost last year and two ski seasons — need customers or they could face permanent closure.
The sector provides one in 10 jobs on the continent and 10 per cent of its GDP. In 2018, the last full year before the pandemic, tourist numbers increased 6 per cent over the previous year as Europe took 51 per cent of all global tourism.
Behind the statistics are actual people, of course, and part of Europe’s charm has always been small colourful operations that cater to tourists. Two in three tourism businesses in Europe are considered small or medium-sized enterprises, many of them grassroots companies started by enterprising locals in the face of poor job prospects in their ancestral communities. Tourism provides a lifeline that keeps locals and even time-honoured traditions afloat.
Yet in early March this year much of the region remains in lockdown as a third wave of infections batters countries already hit hard. Adding to woes is a slow rollout of vaccines by the European Union. By late February the EU average was some 5.67 vaccine doses administered per 100 people, far below the 82.4 by Israel, 53.27 by the UAE and even the 25.73 in the UK.
With criticism and pressure mounting, last week European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced a ‘Digital Green Pass’, a type of Covid-19 passport that would allow those vaccinated to travel within the EU. She said she hopes to have the plan finalised by the end of March and functional in three months to help save the summer season.
This is the EU, so of course there are a range of reactions. Some in Belgium and France say a vaccination passport is intrinsically discriminatory because it favours wealthier nations or individuals that can afford to vaccinate more quickly. Others question privacy issues related to medical histories or the technical challenge of a digital certificate that would presumably be carried in a smartphone, possibly using a QR code.
Another implication would be there is an age bias. With young people last in line to be vaccinated, it could exclude many families from cross-border travel. As well, there are those who cannot be vaccinated due to allergic conditions. Pregnant women are also excluded from vaccination at present.
But some places already have de facto permits. Tourist hotspot Greece has created its own Covid-19 passport, while the Italian island of Sardinia says only vaccinated people can disembark. The Czech Republic, Poland, Italy, Spain and Portugal all give a national certificate upon full vaccination tied to their national health plans, though the paperwork is not yet recognised internationally.
As well, science is still unclear if vaccinations offer permanent protection or whether those previously infected and recovered are immune. Another challenge is extending coverage of the Digital Green Pass beyond Europeans, allowing foreign nationals who can prove they have been vaccinated to enter the EU without having to quarantine.
And international visitors are a huge factor. Spain and France, along with the United States, usually comprise the top three countries for international tourist arrivals, followed closely by Italy, and further back, Germany. The ratio of travel-related revenues to GDP is highest in Croatia, Cyprus and Malta, smaller countries heavily reliant on vacationers.
But to safely tap back into that remains an enormous challenge. At the current rate, the magic vaccination number often quoted for normal life to return — 70 per cent of the population inoculated — won’t be reached in Europe until the end of summer, according to von der Leyen, who said she believes that 70 per cent of all adult citizens in the 27-member EU bloc should be inoculated by then, calling it a “goal that we’re confident with”.
But that timing could be too late for this year’s summer season. Oscar Arce, chief economist at the Bank of Spain, summed up the quandary in an interview the Spanish newspaper El País: “If the vaccination levels are high in June, the tourist season will be saved. But if it’s delayed to the end of the summer the economy will suffer a great deal,” said Arce. “In those three months of radical uncertainty we have a lot at stake”.
Specifics and technical details on the Covid-19 passport will be unveiled later this month. Given the notoriously intricate implementation mechanisms at the EU, the most optimistic scenario to have the system in place appears to be June or early July.
What is known now is that the EU instrument could also be a more inclusive version of the much-discussed vaccination passport.
Besides proof of inoculation, the green pass would also include results of previous Covid-19 tests and medical statements for those who have recovered from the disease.
But whatever the shortfalls or challenges, the Digital Green Pass offers Europe a chance for greater freedom and the sense that better days are arriving. It’s been a long, brutal haul from the grim early months of 2020. Even the most resilient are beginning to buckle.
Just the thought, the possibility, of a day of freedom at the beach offers a fresh breeze of hope. And that is perhaps the medicine that is needed most.
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are journalists based in Milan
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