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Brussels: EU’s COVID travel pass set to expire without booster shot

Brussels says the EU’s COVID travel pass will expire nine months after the last vaccination dose, and a booster shot will be now required to extend the certificate’s validity. In a travel recommendation unveiled this week (25 November), the European Commission has now updated the rules attached to the pass, which is used for cross-border travel, and has been in place since the beginning of the summer.

Brussels says the new change is being introduced to take into consideration rising COVID cases and the roll-out of booster shots.

The proposed amendment means that the COVID Pass (also called the EU Digital COVID Certificate) will only be valid for travelling across EU member nations during the nine months following the last vaccine dose of the “primary series” of vaccines: one dose for the Johnson & Johnson shot and two doses for the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines.

The EU recommends a 9-month time limit for the validity of COVID vaccines for travel to and from EU nations, and also proposes the prioritisation of vaccinated travellers.  Bloomberg reported that the European Commission is also proposing that EU member states should continue to welcome all vaccinated travellers, and that it is also calling for countries to reopen as of 10 January to all those who have been vaccinated with shots approved by the World Health Organisation.

The new recommendation comes on the same day the European Medicines Agency (EMA) authorised the use of the Pfizer vaccine on children aged five to 11. The announcement also coincides with the recent release of data released by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) which shows that vaccine protection declines after six months and recommends the administration of a booster dose to prolong immunity beyond that timeframe.

The purchase of vaccines is centralised by the EU through common agreements, although each country has its own vaccine rollout and health policy is a national competence. The European Commission says that the additional three months on top of the initial six will allow for more flexibility in vaccine rollout campaigns of member states. The executive is now determining how long the booster shot will remain valid.

The EU travel certificate can also be accessed with a negative COVID test carried out in the 72 hours prior to travel or through a statement of medical recovery if the person is not vaccinated or does not want to disclose vaccine status. In light of today’s announcement, the system’s core rules will remain the same, with pass-holders having the right to be immune from travel restrictions, including testing and mandatory quarantines, regardless of the EU country they come from. Citizens who, on the other hand, do not have the EU certificate, will be allowed to travel but can however be subject to added requirements before or after their travel, based on the countries they are travelling to and from. Children over the age of 12 will be subject to the same rules as adults.

Speaking on the new requirements, Didier Reynders, the European Commissioner for justice, said it was clear the COVID crisis had not yet subsided. He said: “It is evident that the pandemic is not yet over,” adding: “Travel rules need to take into account this volatile situation.” Reynders also said that he hopes the updated framework will be in place by the start of the New Year.

The recommendation must be put in place by all 27 EU countries, some of which were urging the executive to adopt the rules to start taking booster shots into account. The Commissioner also said that the EU has now turned its focus to a person-based strategy as opposed to its country-based approach to the COVID crisis, stating that the new framework will combine the new infection rate, vaccine uptake, and the rate of testing to determine high and low-risk areas.

He said that while vaccinated people are “better” protected against COVID, they are not “completely” protected.

“This takes into account [the fact that] vaccinated people are better protected against the virus, even if not completely.”

Official statistics show that 76 per cent of the EU’s adult population is fully vaccinated, although the numbers differ greatly among some member states, particularly in Eastern nations. In Ukraine, only 21 per cent of people are vaccinated; in Romania, the vaccination rate is 37 per cent, while neighbouring Bulgaria, just 24 per cent of people have been jabbed. Croatia, where thousands gathered in capital Zagreb over the weekend chanting ‘Freedom is not for sale,’ less than half of the population are vaccinated.

The EU’s digital COVID pass for travelling came into force on 1 July for an original timeframe of 12 months, with the hope that the COVID crisis would be over by next summer. Brussels reportedly views the scheme as a success, with more than 650 million certificates issued so far with 51 countries, including the UK and Ireland connected to the system.

Regardless of its purported success, the roll-out of booster shots across the EU member states is likely to cause some confusion among citizens. Simultaneous to the EU-wide certificate, the majority of member states have introduced the use of green passes to permit entry into indoor spaces, such as theatres, bars, nightclubs, other hospitality and entertainment settings.

Whilst the national and European certificates are connected to the same IT infrastructure, rules of usage differ in practise. The EU system only applies to travel across borders and does not shape the way a government might employ its COVID pass within its own nation.

The travel industry has been watching the EU’s plans with anticipation. After increasing capacity from June through October, European airlines are starting to pull back, with the number of seats being offered decreasing. According to Bloomberg, the amount of seats being offered on flights in Austria this week is 39 per cent below 2019 levels, a 3 percent drop-off from the start of November, as a new lockdown for all citizens came into effect on Monday amid a rise in COVID cases.

The setback is set to carry on as Christmas looms, with outspoken Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary warning of booking turbulence and a “fraught” Christmas period.

In an interview broadcast by Eurocontrol on Tuesday, O’Leary voiced fears that the latest wave of COVID could have a knock-on effect on holiday planning for summer 2022, which typically takes place around the end of the year.

“Up until last weekend, things were going great,” O’Leary said.

“Austria is locking down, Holland is locking down, the Germans are getting nervous,” O’Leary said, adding: “I think we’re in for a fraught period between now and Christmas where it looks like Europe is going to get very nervous again, at the worst time of the year when people are making their Christmas travel plans.”

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