Mitsotakis: To get Europe moving again we must act now on vaccination certificates

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Greek Prime Minister: "Now that the end may just about be in sight, with the gradual rolling out of mass vaccination across all EU countries, we must not take that sacrifice for granted." [EPA-EFE/JOHN THYS]

Read the op-ed also in Romanian.

The curtailment of our freedom and prosperity during this dreadful pandemic has been historically unprecedented and painful. COVID has brought grief and isolation and has impacted not just our health, but our livelihoods, our prospects, and our societal norms, writes Kyriakos Mitsotakis.

Kyriakos Mitsotakis is the prime minister of Greece. The English version of this opinion piece has been submitted exclusively to EURACTIV.

It was a necessary and conscious sacrifice to save as many lives as possible.

Now that the end may just about be in sight, with the gradual rolling out of mass vaccination across all EU countries, we must not take that sacrifice for granted.

We owe it to our citizens to pull every available lever and utilise every tool in our political and governmental arsenal so that we have everything in place to expedite a return to normal life within 2021.

We cannot afford to jeopardize jobs or lose one more year attempting to kick-start our economies. We cannot allow bureaucracy and talk to mean delay and drift when we can take action.

One of the biggest levers we can pull on is linking vaccine certification with an uninhibited – by current existing restrictions – movement of travel. And we can do so at a European Union level.

Through the EU wide introduction of an agreed and standardised digital vaccine certificate template we can quickly open up again, reviving tourism and recreation, and allowing our citizens to move freely and without restrictions from country to country. I will be advocating for such an arrangement at this week’s European Council meeting.

I appreciate there will be concerns with this. Why move now at such an early stage and not later? Because we need to prepare ourselves for the summer when a much larger number of people will have been vaccinated – the Passenger Locator Form experience of last summer showed us that planning ahead is essential.

People will rightly ask if this could lead to some kind of curtailment of freedom to travel? 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.

Those who wish to travel, but are not in possession of such a certificate, should still be able to do so under existing travel rules, such as obligatory pcr testing before travel, rapid tests upon arrival and quarantines where appropriate.

Such measures should and will remain the prerogative of each sovereign nation and will almost certainly be with us during 2021 as we proceed towards immunity. But it would be both cumbersome and economically inefficient if such measures were applied to everyone.

Is data protection in jeopardy? No. In Greece we have already developed a draft digital vaccination certificate for air, sea, and rail travel and have shared it with our EU partners. It features a QR code, a unique document identifier, and a digital seal all linked to our portal so that anyone can validate the authenticity of the certificate.

It is bilingual and also includes the individual’s name, social security number, the vaccine type and the date and venue of the doses administered. Everything is digitally verifiable and encrypted in a matter of seconds. And when it comes to data protection, safe and secure. I am committed to sharing this technology and know-how with all European member states.

While in Greece, there will be no compulsion to have the vaccine and indeed no requirement to have a certificate to travel, I do hope and believe that people will embrace both. I accept that many citizens who are not in vulnerable categories will remain unvaccinated for some time yet. Which is why we will continue to utilise our world-class smart testing system at airports.

Ultimately, what an agreed digital vaccination certificate will do is provide certainty, allowing citizens to travel unencumbered by quarantine restrictions as soon as they are vaccinated and have a significant level of immunity.

That’s exactly why I am raising the issue now with the European Commission, and why EU leaders need to start to work on this initiative immediately, in order to fairly structure digital vaccine certificates and associated practices that satisfy any concerns.

Above all, this is not a vaccine passport. It is not about restricting people’s ability to travel. Rather it is about opening up the freedom of movement using a simple, certain, and secure digital solution that can get our economies moving again. It’s exactly the kind of collaborative project that the EU was set up to deliver. Together we can do it.

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