Vaccine passports ‘WILL be here by summer’ say EU leaders as Britons’ hopes of beach holidays rise – but Angela Merkel says they could take three months to set up
- EU leaders agree to work on vaccine certificates programme for the summer
- Greece and Spain desperate to passport policy to kickstart tourism economies
- But Germany’s Angela Merkel says scheme will take three months to develop – hitting Britons’ hopes for holidays on the continent
- One EU official says the bloc wants to avoid ‘a new death season’ this summer
- The UK has given 27 vaccine doses per 100 people, while EU is on 6.2 per 100
EU leaders have agreed to introduce vaccine passports by the summer in a boost to Britons planning holidays on Europe’s beaches.
Having suffered its deepest recession to date and still floundering on the rollout of its vaccination programme, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that ‘everyone agreed that we need a digital vaccination certificate’ programme during a virtual summit.
But Merkel admitted technical work on the vaccine ‘passports’ by the EU Commission would take three months to complete, meaning it would not be ready when Britain could start easing international travel restrictions in May.
It comes following pressure from southern European countries to have schemes in place to help safely kickstart their tourism-dependent economies.
Greece officials plan to have the country open by May, and want a scheme that will allow entry to people who have received both doses of an approved Covid vaccine.
The country’s government is reportedly considering plans to open its borders to vaccinated Brits that month, which could put it in conflict with EU plans on foreign travel.
EU leaders have agreed to introduce vaccine passports by the summer in a boost to Britons planning holidays on Europe’s beaches. Pictured: European Council president Charles Michel (top left) meets EU leaders including Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel at a virtual summit
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted technical work on the vaccine ‘passports’ by the EU Commission would take three months to complete, meaning it would not be ready when Britain could start easing international travel restrictions in May
It comes as the EU vaccination programme continues to flounder, with millions of doses of Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs left unused in France and Germany
France, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands are all seeing cases stagnate or increase with only a fairly small share of the population vaccinated so far – while infections are continuing to drop in the UK with far more people given at least one vaccine dose
Merkel, 66, WON’T have Oxford vaccine and backs officials who have not recommended jab for over-65s, while 1.2m doses sit unused
Angela Merkel has said she will not take the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine because she is too old, despite Europe begging its citizens to take the shot to speed up its floundering jab roll-out.
The German chancellor, 66, was asked if she would take the jab to set an example to a country where many are refusing the Oxford vaccine and 1.2million of the shots are lying unused in storage.
But Merkel told FAZ that she was not eligible because German regulators have restricted the jab to under-65s, a move which has yet to be reversed even after data from Scotland showed it is highly effective in the elderly.
‘I am 66 years old and do not belong to the recommended group for AstraZeneca,’ Merkel said, after describing the vaccine as ‘reliable, effective and safe’ for others to take.
‘All the authorities tell us that you can trust this vaccine. As long as vaccine supplies are as limited as they are at the moment, you don’t get to choose which one you get,’ she added.
However, French President Emmanuel Macron has now said he would gladly accept being inoculated with the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine if it were offered when his turn comes.
Mr Macron has previously questioned the jab’s effectiveness and lashed out at AstraZeneca to save face in a row over procurement last month.
Regulators are also continuing to limit access for over-65s in spite of real-world proof that it works.
Spain has also been pushing for an EU-wide passport policy as the country is desperate to kickstart tourism. Its foreign secretary proposed that ‘vaccine certificate holders could be exempt from taking a test’.
Austria has also called for an EU-wide ‘green passport’ which would allow people to go on holiday and ‘enjoy gastronomy, culture, events and other things again’.
The move has face resistance from some countries – including France and Belgium – who are concerned that easing travel for people who have been inoculated would discriminate against others.
But their claims come as the EU vaccination scheme continues to stumble with just 6.2 vaccine doses per 100 people being given out versus 27 doses per 100 in the UK.
French scientists also say the country faces a new wave of severe cases in April and May – at the same time the UK expects to ease its restrictions after all over-50s have been vaccinated.
Although infection rates are heading down in about 20 EU member states, there are concerns about a third wave of coronavirus because of the variant first detected in Britain spreading rapidly in some countries.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned that the British variant was present in 26 of the EU’s 27 countries, the South African variant in 14 and the Brazilian in seven.
‘There is growing COVID fatigue among our citizens,’ she said. ‘But we should not let up now. Not only does the situation remain serious in many parts of Europe but we must also watch for the new variants that are spreading.’
One EU official gave a blunt assessment of the risks of opening up in the next few months – saying that the bloc wants to avoid ‘a new death season’.
Yesterday the EU said it was on track to hit its target of vaccinating 70 percent of adults by the end of the summer although progress remains sluggish, while the global coronavirus death toll topped 2.5 million.
The milestone came as a new study showed Pfizer’s Covid jab to be 94 percent effective, raising hopes for mass immunisation campaigns to help end the pandemic.
The World Health Organization (WHO), meanwhile, urged governments to try to better understand the long-term consequences of coronavirus on some sufferers, calling the impact of prolonged symptoms a ‘significant’ burden.
After a video summit of EU leaders focused on the bloc’s vaccination roll-out against Covid-19, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said fully vaccinating just under three-quarters of adults by late summer was a ‘goal that we’re confident with’.
But EU leaders warned that tight travel restrictions must remain as the bloc stepped up ‘efforts to accelerate the provision of vaccines’, although it would take months, not weeks, to build enough vaccine supplies.
People enjoy an afternoon on the beach in Barcelona last summer – with European nations now looking for ways to open up again for the 2021 tourist season
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned that the British Covid variant was present in 26 of the EU’s 27 countries, the South African variant in 14 and the Brazilian in seven
Some leaders like Austria’s Sebastian Kurz want Europe to develop a so-called ‘green passport’ for those who have been vaccinated to travel and socialise.
‘We want to get back to normal as quickly as possible, have our old lives back and maximum freedom,’ Kurz tweeted.
The bloc has been plagued by vaccine supply problems and has come under fire for its stuttering rollout.
Just four percent of the EU’s 450 million people have received at least one jab, according to an AFP tally.
The virtual meeting yesterday comes with many EU countries still mired in second or third waves of the pandemic and all of them struggling to dish out vaccines.
The UK is way ahead in the vaccine race and could allow Britons to travel abroad from May 17, but whether European countries will be open by then is less clear.
Greek tourism minister Haris Theoharis said vaccinated Britons would be allowed in this summer, after the Mediterranean nation was one of the first to open up in 2020.
Theoharis said those who had not been vaccinated would need a negative test, telling ITV News that ‘it doesn’t mean that only vaccinated people can travel’.
‘We feel that the vaccination programmes is a game changer, together with rapid tests and alongside PCR tests,’ he said.
Tourists in Magaluf last summer after Spain opened up again, only for the travel and hospitality industries to take another pounding as the virus came roaring back in the autumn
The UK’s rapid vaccine roll-out has opened the door to international travel this summer, but whether Britons will be welcome in Europe is less clear
France changes its tune on AstraZeneca jabs following Ursula von der Leyen’s praise for the vaccine
France’s government has said it wants to ‘rehabilitate’ the AstraZeneca vaccine as EU leaders try to undo the doubts they sowed about the jab which have led to low uptake despite its proven effectiveness.
The French health ministry admitted that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine had an ‘image deficit’ which had led to ‘feeble’ usage of the jab, with only 107,000 people immunised with it so far.
It comes after Emmanuel Macron himself raised doubts about the jab’s effectiveness and claimed that Britain had taken a risk by authorising it so soon, while French regulators refused to approve it for over-65s.
Meanwhile the French government is considering new local restrictions to deal with a worsening Covid-19 situation as it scrambles to avoid a new national lockdown.
‘We will use all possible levers to rehabilitate the vaccine,’ the French health ministry said, according to Le Telegramme, days after real-world data in Scotland showed the AstraZeneca shot reducing Covid hospitalisations by 94 per cent.
Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Bulgarian premier Boyko Borissov have also called for ‘green passports’ that could indicate both vaccines and test results.
But several EU officials and diplomats warn that, while they back a verifiable vaccination record, it is too early to look at using them to permit easier travel.
They said it was still not clear whether vaccinated people can infect others, and worried that it could open a travel schism between a minority of vaccinated haves and a majority of unvaccinated have-nots.
Many young people have voiced anger at the prospect of seeing their elders enjoy foreign holidays while they themselves are still stuck at home.
One senior EU diplomat acknowledged that all EU countries were eager to reopen for the summer season, but that said ‘we have to move this forward together’.
Brussels is also concerned about new variants which could require special booster jabs, meaning vaccine certificates would have to be constantly updated.
And a dispute is also stewing over severe border restrictions put in place by several EU countries to curb the virus variants, and which Brussels sees as disproportionate.
It has written warning letters to Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary and Sweden about their measures, giving them until late next week to respond.
An EU official said he expected ‘quite a lively discussion between the member states’ on that issue during the summit.
The EU’s internal market commissioner, Thierry Breton, tweeted that ‘the closure of borders by certain member states hurts the entire single market’.
Israel has already moved to bring in ‘green passes’ to re-open its economy, with nearly a third of the population already receiving two doses of a vaccine.
In addition to those who have already recovered from the disease, it means almost three million people in Israel are eligible for such a pass.
Gyms, swimming pools, hotels and some cultural facilities are re-opening only to those who have been fully vaccinated and obtained the pass.
The scheme is being closely watched abroad, with Boris Johnson saying that the UK was looking at the idea of ‘certification’ but mindful of ethical concerns.
A woman holds up a vaccine ‘green pass’ in Israel which is pioneering the scheme after leading the world in distributing jabs
Lifting weights at a gym near Tel Aviv on Saturday, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was moving ahead ‘with caution’ after three national lockdowns.
Netanyahu is hoping the successful vaccine roll-out will boost his support ahead of March 23 elections, Israel’s fourth vote in less than two years.
On top of examining options for developing a common certificate strategy, the EU leaders will look at how to speed the continent’s own sluggish vaccine roll-out.
Supplies in the first two months of 2021 have been hampered by delays in AstraZeneca shipments after the EU was slow to sign a contract with the firm.
The EU now hopes that supplies will be greatly boosted from April with more stocks from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna.
There is also the possibility of new vaccines such as a single-dose option from Johnson & Johnson being authorised.
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