EU launches digital Covid certificate to restore free movement

By on 17/06/2021
European citizens will soon be able to assert their freedom of movement rights across the bloc using the EU Digital Covid Certificate. Credit: Skitterphoto/Pexels

Citizens of the EU-27 will soon be able to assert their freedom of movement rights across the bloc without COVID-19 testing, self-isolation or quarantine restrictions, after the EU completed the legislative and technical work to create a digital COVID certificate.

Under the Regulation on the EU Digital Covid Certificate, signed on 14 June and effective from 1 July this year, member states agree not to impose additional travel restrictions, such as tests or quarantine, unless they are “necessary and proportionate” to safeguard public health.

Held in digital form on a smartphone or as a paper printout, the certificate proves that the holder has been vaccinated against COVID-19, has had an up-to-date negative test result, or has recovered from COVID-19 within the past 180 days.

The scheme addresses privacy concerns by holding and exchanging minimal personal data, according to the EU. The scannable QR code in each passport only encodes names, dates of birth, a reference number, and evidence that the certificate was issued by an authorised health authority, test centre or other body.

Borderless Europe

The EU sees the project as re-asserting the principles of free movement and reciprocal rights across Europe, after restrictions led to a complex web of bilateral arrangements between countries.

At an official signing ceremony for the enabling legislation earlier this week, the presidents of the European Commission, European Parliament, and Council of Europe emphasised the political dimension to the public health and travel measure.

In a joint statement, Ursula von der Leyen, David Sassoli and António Costa called the passport a “symbol” of a united Europe. “The Europe that we all know and that we all want back is a Europe without barriers. The EU Certificate will again enable citizens to enjoy this most tangible and cherished of EU rights – the right to free movement,” they said.

“Signed into law today, it will enable us to travel more safely this summer. Today we reaffirm together that an open Europe prevails,” they added.

The scheme also emphasises that holding a COVID certificate will not be a pre-condition of travel or a limitation on freedom of movement rights: without the certificate, travellers can instead use the  quarantine, testing and self-isolation regimes.

Interoperable infrastructure

Thirteen EU countries – including Denmark, Estonia, Greece and Sweden – have already built digital passport schemes, often drawing on their existing digital ID infrastructure.

Now, the EU-wide scheme creates an agreed technical specification that all member states should adopt, and which the EU hopes could also be incorporated by non-EU schemes to facilitate reciprocal travel rights – and tourism spending.

The specification creates agreed rules and standards for the three different types of EU Digital Covid Certificates: vaccination status; test results; and recovery status.

Countries must offer an app or portal for making applications, a digital storage solution, and an app for verification scanning. Open-source reference software and apps are available, or states can develop or use their own. 

The EU has also set up the necessary technical infrastructure – called the EU Gateway, hosted at the EU Commission’s data centre in Europe – so that border authorities in different member states can verify the digital signatures of the issuing bodies.

However, it says that the personal data in the scanned QR code does not pass through the “gateway”.

International efforts to develop vaccine passports

A recent Global Government Forum webinar on COVID passports explored how countries that had already developed digital IDs to access public services – such as tax, education or healthcare – had a head-start in building a system to facilitate external travel.

For instance, the SingPass digital identity scheme in Singapore formed the basis of the nation state’s COVID-19 passport scheme, and the Danish and Estonian schemes also rely on digital ID schemes built for accessing public services.

But countries with a historic and cultural resistance to national ID schemes have been playing catch-up. In the USA, for example, the Biden administration has said that it has no plans to create or endorse a federal digital COVID passport, leaving the field open to a variety of private sector or state-led initiatives.

On the other hand, homeland security secretary Alejandro Mayorkasrecently said that the US government would explore the idea of a digital passport for international travellers, in the interests of facilitating “diversity, equity and inclusion”.

Meanwhile, the UK has exploited its national healthcare system to build a system based on healthcare ID numbers and facial recognition that does not link to other personal data. Australia is also considering a digital vaccine certificate linked to citizen’s accounts with Medicare, its universal public health system.

Once the EU Digital COVID Certificate Regulation takes effect on 1 July, member states will have a six-week phasing-in period to issue certificates.

The EU Commission has also committed €100m (US$121m) under the Emergency Support Instrument to support member states in providing affordable tests.

Read our report on GGF’s recent COVID passports webinar, featuring panellists from Sweden, Estonia, Germany and Singapore.

About Elaine Knutt

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