EU digital Covid certificate: offering safe freedom of movement

Alongside various health passports launched for specific access, the European Commission has launched its own EU Digital Covid Certificate, which aims to facilitate safe and free movement during the pandemic within the EU. Frankie Youd explores the benefits of this certificate as well as the potential setbacks that it could bring.

Covid-19 travel passes and health certificates have received a mixed response from members of the public, with some feeling their introduction restricts their rights.

Many organisations have created their own, usually in the form of an app or QR code. They allow verified information surrounding the individual’s Covid-19 status to be identified, such as their vaccination status or test history.

These ‘vaccine passports’ offer a recognised form of health data information that not only allows individuals to travel but also provides airport staff with a means of verifying health data, which is critical to ensure that potential Covid-19 transmission is minimised.

The introduction of the EUDCC aims to remove travel restrictions, quarantine obligations, and Covid-19 testing for EU citizens. 

Concept to construction

Initially proposed by the European Commission on 14 March 2021, the certificate has undergone various name changes between its initial announcement and its final provisional agreement on 20 May 2021. During this time, the certificate transitioned from a commission proposal to a new law.

While the European Parliament pushed for the certificate to be about restoring the freedom of movement for EU citizens, member states fought back, demanding strong discretionary components such as the use of an emergency brake if there is a sudden rise of infections in another member state.

On 14 June, three EU institutions – the European Commission, Council, and Parliament – released a joint statement stressing that the certificate is being introduced to offer EU citizens freedom of movement. EU member states agreed to a non-binding recommendation that could limit potential restrictions for individuals who cannot prove immunity or who have travelled from a high-risk location.

How does it work?

The EUDCC came into use on 1 July 2021 and enables EU citizens and residents to have digital Covid-19 certificates issued and verified across the EU. The certificate provides digital proof that the individual has either been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, received a negative test, or recovered from Covid-19.

Speaking on the launch of the certificate in a press release, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: "The European Union is delivering for its citizens, we are helping Europeans get back the freedom they value and cherish so much."

Certificate format

The certificate is available in a digital or paper format as a scannable QR code that contains a digital signature to protect it against falsification. It is free of charge and is valid in all EU countries.

National authorities – such as health authorities or test centres – have been placed in charge of issuing certificates to EU citizens, which can be stored on their mobile devices if the digital format is requested.

One of the driving forces for the certificate’s introduction was to facilitate free movement, allowing EU member states to ensure that individuals they are allowing through their borders comply with an EU recognised Covid-19 protocol standard.

The certificate will also allow EU citizens to travel to another EU country even if they are not yet vaccinated, provided proof of negative test results.

Member states are currently not legally obliged to implement the certificate, however, all states are in the process of introducing it into their systems. Each member state will still be able to impose its own restrictions on travellers from other EU countries, however, if this is the case the commission and other member states must be informed as to which measures are being put in place.

Feedback from the industry

Although the certificate offers benefits, from individuals being able to travel once more to airports being provided with an EU-recognised form of health identification, it has ignited some concerns in the travel industry.

Following its launch, a group representing Europe’s largest airlines and airports said that they felt the plan for the certificate is still “fragmented." Following this, airport groups including Airports Council International Europe, International Aviation Transport Association, and the European Regions Airline Association sent a signed letter of warning to EU leaders.

Part of the statement read: “Certificate verification will undermine smooth summer travel for EU passengers. As passenger traffic increases in the coming weeks, the risk of chaos at European Airports is real. Duplicate checks and lack of verification tools provided to airlines will cause unnecessary airport queues and longer processing times if not addressed by the member states."

Current issues

One prominent issue with the certificate is the number of vaccinations the individual has had. If the individual has had only one vaccine so far this will be registered on the certificate. However, whether this will be sufficient for them to evade quarantine on their arrival depends on the member states' current guidelines.

Likewise, on arrival, the member state could insist that the individual take a test before leaving the airport, regardless of whether they have already registered a negative test on their certificate.

Even though the certificate has been launched and is being used by EU travellers, it is still experiencing some technical issues, as raised by several airlines. They have stated that appropriate check-in equipment has not been available for them to scan passengers’ certificates and that even when they do have scanning equipment the QR is not always recognised.

This has been reported as being down to the destination country still applying Covid-19 restrictions to the location the traveller has come from.

With the certificate still in its early days, the air industry hopes that over time its issues and concerns are resolved, allowing ‘free movement’ within the EU for travellers.