by Vasileios S. Kesidis & Dr. Fotis Fitsilis
One of the pillars of the European construct is undoubtedly the free movement of goods and ideas; and people. Primarily people. Students just need to resemble the Erasmus program, the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS), even seasonal work opportunities for students and multiple other notions of student mobility that would simply not be possible without the very existence of the European Union (EU). And it is exactly this expression of the European identity the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted. Within weeks, one after the other, all European countries closed their borders or imposed severe entry restrictions to individuals originating from high-risk regions. The vision of an interconnected, accessible and hospitable European continent that took decades to become reality was reduced to EU member states competing on how efficiently they singlehandedly manage the situation instead of working together to combat the pandemic. Facing an unprecedented challenge, governance institutions often resorted to emergency regulations and turned to crisis management modus to maintain a functional economy and prevent societal structures from falling apart. Nevertheless, it has to be taken into consideration that this did not just affect the economic and educational sectors but had a remarkable impact in the psyche of people who are seeking a return ticket to normality.
State of play
For almost a year, a vaccine was expected like a deus ex machina that would instantly normalize the situation. When it finally arrived, in December 2020, it soon became clear that this was far from true. The main reason is that an uncertain period of time is needed until the vaccine is provided to a sufficient number of people to achieve ‘herd immunity’ conditions. This is the case when the chain of transmission in a population is disrupted to such a degree that the virus cannot find enough unprotected individuals to create new chains of infection – a process that generates an effective barrier to the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus. Nonetheless, even when this milestone is reached, an additional yet unknown time interval will be necessary until the coronavirus gradually comes to terms with the host population. As a consequence, societal and financial uncertainties about returning to (a new) normality continue to exist; and uncertainty is an -if not the most- significant barrier to progress, innovation and ultimately economic growth.
Within this distorted and uncertain global environment, the idea of some sort of ‘heath certificate’ was born. In the span of the past months, it has been given many names, such as vaccination or health certificate or passport. One or another, it is an official (digital) document that proves that a given individual is disease-free. It needs to be taken into account that such documents are not a novelty and possibly constitute one of the oldest (and most credible) legal arguments to be denied entrance in a country, territory and area on health safety grounds. The World Health Organisation (WHO) regularly publishes a relevant list with vaccination requirements and recommendations for international travel. In principle, the nature of such a certificate can be twofold. To indicate that a given individual has been recently tested negative and can therefore be allowed to travel or, alternatively, and what matters here most, to provide proof of vaccination. Such proof, usually with a yet to be scientifically specified additional period without symptoms, may provide sufficient safety margins for whole countries to allow vaccinated individuals to enter their borders.
Materialisation and first response
In general, the introduction of a trustworthy vaccination certificate makes sense, for instance against forged documents, but at the same time it is of limited added value when used within the borders of a single country. The real benefits start to materialize when a conglomeration of states agree on its use. Hence, the EU builds an excellent base to prove the usefulness of the vaccination certificate. On 12 January 2021, the Prime Minister of the Hellenic Republic Kyriakos Mitsotakis sent a letter to the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and the EU leaders on ‘the establishment of a common European certificate for people vaccinated against Covid-19’. The move sparked a multitude of reactions at all levels of European governance including among major societal stakeholders and citizens of Europe.
Initial careful reaction and scepticism from Brussels was followed by a majority of positive responses, which resulted in open public support. Precisely, the Coronavirus vaccination certificate is a proposal to establish a common ground for the utilization of the aforementioned certificate for people vaccinated against Covid-19. The certificate aims at facilitating cross-border transport and a gradual return to normality, while simultaneously providing an additional incentive for the vaccination of European citizens. Proof of vaccination could help countries open up faster, say Europe’s airlines, hoteliers and the continent’s hard-struck travel agencies. Recently, the Secretary General of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation Zurab Pololikashvili, called for countries to adopt digital vaccination passports which he said would get the world traveling again.
Traditional lines in European politics have been particularly visible in this proposal. The countries of the European South, i.e. Italy, Malta, Spain, and Cyprus, which have a strong tourism industry, but also Scandinavian countries, appear to have found a common stance on the adoption of a vaccination certificate. Outside Europe, as governments and companies around the world explore how certificates and passports could help re-open economies by indicating those protected by the coronavirus, Bahrain is one of the first countries to introduce the digital vaccination passport. Naturally, the transport sector, particularly air carriers, greeted the idea of a vaccination certificate, which can be legally enabled when incorporated into existing service contracts as a precondition to boarding.
Greece already started to issue secure Covid-19 vaccination certificates through its central government portal gov.gr. Depending on the type of vaccine, the certificate can be issued the day after the last dose. Social Security number and access codes to online taxation services are necessary to enter the relevant application. The issued certificate has a unique QR verification code and an advanced digital stamp. Information about the vaccine and the timing of the doses are also provided. Precisely, this project has taken a leap forward with the publication, on January 18, of a Joint Ministerial Decision (1163/18.1.2021) that establishes the relevant procedure and document format, which refers the name and surname of the vaccinated citizen, the Social Security number, the date of vaccination (first and second dose), the vaccination centre and the vaccine type.
Pros and cons
Vaccination Certificates, along with scientific proof that vaccinated individuals are not (or not likely, at least) able to transmit the disease, are likely to open up again whole sectors of economy, such as tourism, higher education and science, where the ability to travel is a critical parameter for efficient service provision. Most likely, such certificates will have a much wider impact as people want to feel again able to live their previous lives.
However, besides the purely economic arguments for adopting a vaccination certificate, there are multiple other factors that need to be taken into account, if one wants to examine the issue from a holistic perspective. The latter include the investigation on possible breaches of human and personal rights. In particular, there have been expressed considerations that such certificates constitute obstacles to free movement or that they may be discriminatory against the unvaccinated. A potential breach of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) needs also to be avoided.
It must be underlined though that, in general, and subject to safety guarantees, GDPR allows for the processing of medical data for reasons of public health protection. Regardless if such concerns are overrated or not, they need to be tackled one by one, according to the legal and human-centric tradition of Europe. At the same time, while the legality issue is still debated, there are also ethical aspects that need to be taken into account, for instance, inexpensive, equitable and easy access to vaccination and testing. It is only when these have been ensured that such a measure can be imposed with broad societal support.
Apart from legal-ethical issues, the role of digital technology is critical in combating the virus. Mobile applications (apps), secure communication protocols and data anonymization belong to the weaponry against the coronavirus. From the early days of the pandemic, multiple mobile contact tracing and warning apps have been developed and utilized in EU member states. So many that the EU came forth with a relevant decision, a toolbox and guiding principles for these apps, among others, to ensure cross-border user’s personal data protection. Currently, several companies are at an advanced stage of creating smartphone apps that utilize vaccination data, according to different implementation scenarios for the vaccination certificate and national, regional or European (see GDPR) laws and regulations.
A vaccination certificate is an official document providing proof that an individual has gotten all necessary doses of a vaccine. In case of Covid-19, it may accelerate the path to post-pandemic reality and re-ignite basic societal functions. The importance of a centralized approach to the Covid-19 challenge, such as the vital necessity of a common vaccination certificate, has to be recognised. In this regard, the concrete proposal of the Hellenic Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis needs to be taken into consideration, as it holds the potential to jump-start European economies.
Τhere is general consensus that it is a measure compatible with the protection of public health and is therefore positively considered to support the public interest. Moreover, it can be regarded as a truly European measure as it has an inherent potential to re-establish the European way of life that generations after WWII and the collapse of the socialist East, have enjoyed. There are both legal and ethical considerations that need to be taken into account in the design and implementation of a relevant pan-European system. Even so, the EU has a long tradition to reach significant decisions by consensus and this is a precedent that can prove decisive in the general adoption of the vaccination certificate.
The EU member states have to consulate with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the Health Security Committee (HSC), the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the WHO to reach an agreement on the matter for the benefit of all European citizens and to define a specific roadmap for tackling vaccination scepticism and disinformation. We have no doubt that the Union of Europeans will bring back solidarity and unity to our continent and attempt the necessary innovative steps to lead society into the future; a future that European society is ready to take on.