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Could ‘health passports’ kickstart travel around Europe?

From digital certificates to "health passports", countries across Europe are considering how to relaunch travel and it could involve letting people prove their Covid-free status.

Could 'health passports' kickstart travel around Europe?
A picture taken on March 3, 2021 in Paris shows a vaccine vial reading "Covid-19 vaccine" and a syringe on an European passport. (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP)

But with patchy vaccine access around the world and mounting concerns over data privacy, questions are swirling about how the measures will work in practice.

EU has a plan 

The European Union unveiled a plan Wednesday to set up a travel certificate to help restore freedom of movement within the bloc for citizens inoculated against the coronavirus.

“With this digital certificate we aim to help member states reinstate the freedom of movement in a safe, responsible and trusted manner,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said.

It will show “whether the person has either been vaccinated, or has a recent negative test, or has recovered from Covid, and thus has antibodies.”

‘It’s not a vaccine passport’

The plan may however face stiff resistance from many members states, particularly over fears of discrimination against those still waiting for a vaccine.

According to EU commission spokesman Eric Mamer, “We don’t call it a vaccine passport we call it a green digital certificate.”

“It is a document that will describe the medical situation of the individuals who hold this certificate.”

READ ALSO: How are European countries comparing in the battle against Covid ‘third wave’?

(AFP)

There’s an app for that?

Many programmes under development are geared towards facilitating travel and come in the form of smartphone apps with varying criteria for a clean bill of health.

Vaccine passports, for example, are a popular way to tackle proof of immunity with jab rollouts under way across the globe.

There are also apps that accept positive antibody tests as proof of immunity for those who have had the virus and recovered.

But the World Health Organization has warned that there is no evidence to show that recovered Covid sufferers with antibodies are protected from a second infection.

French President Emmanuel Macron recently suggested a more localised form of Covid-free permission slip: the so-called “health pass”.

This would only be valid within France’s borders but would allow a fully vaccinated person to, for example, eat in restaurants and attend certain events.

A board indicates the waiting line for passengers with a “AOK pass” at the arrivals area of Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport on March 18, 2021, during a trial stage of Air France’s digital sanitary pass “AOKpass”. (Photo by ERIC PIERMONT / AFP)

What do certain countries think?

The idea has not been without its critics in France, who worry that it could amount to coercion in a notoriously vaccine-sceptic country – however a trial has begun on two Air France routes of a digital pass which includes options for travellers to provide either their vaccine status or a recent negative Covid test.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has been one of the major proponents of a vaccination certificate at EU level. Known in Austria as the ‘Green Pass’, Kurz on Wednesday promised that vaccination certificates enabling international travel will be available from April for anyone who has received both doses of the vaccine, tested negative or recovered from the virus.

The Swiss government is in favour of an Israeli-style immunity certificate which would provide access to international travel as well as domestic benefits such as visiting restaurants and attending events.

In Italy, where authorities are struggling to speed up vaccinations, the government isn’t discussing vaccine passports – probably because so few people would actually be eligible for them. But commentators have expressed concerns that the scheme would discriminate against younger, healthy people, that it could expose sensitive personal data, and that it would amount to making vaccination compulsory when the Italian health ministry insists it should be voluntary.

In Sweden, which has announced its own plans for a digital ‘vaccine pass’, the Digitalisation Minister on Wednesday said he was positive towards the EU proposals “in principle” but said he had questions about some aspects of the plan.

READ ALSO: Sweden to introduce digital ‘vaccine passport’

Where can I sign up? 

China this month launched a digital health certificate for its 1.3 billion citizens that shows the holder’s vaccine status and virus test results.

Greece and Cyprus have vaccination passports specifically for travel to and from Israel, which has fully vaccinated 44 percent of its population.

Is it an official travel document?

No, and there is currently no effort under way to establish a required document to travel between countries.

The Chinese health passport is an attempt to make it easier for its citizens to travel abroad, but without recognition from other countries it is of little use.

For the moment, the applications are meant to facilitate various health checks still in place at different borders, with airlines among major proponents.

Through several of its member carriers, the International Air Transport Association has been offering a digital pass allowing passengers to easily prove their health status before boarding.

READ ALSO: France to trail ‘vaccine passports’ for flights

Can we make it official?

Making health passports stricter or requiring them for travel could invite legal challenges.

A major worry is that banning unvaccinated people from travelling would exacerbate inequality since access to jabs is far from universal.

According to the latest count by AFP, only 3.5 percent of the European population has been fully vaccinated so far.

There are also concerns over how applications would access users’ personal data.

In France, there is already an official database of citizens who have been vaccinated against Covid-19, approved by the country’s privacy watchdog.

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TRAVEL NEWS

What to expect from strike action in France during the February school holidays

Several French unions have filed strike notices for February, with some aiming to target to busy February holiday period - here's what you can expect.

What to expect from strike action in France during the February school holidays

France is in the grip of a major confrontation between unions and the government over plans to reform the pension system.

So far, the main actions have been concentrated on one-day strikes that are supported by all eight of the union federations, however an increasing number of unions are filing notices for renewable or unlimited strikes, with some targeting the February holidays.

The French minister of tourism, Olivia Gregoire, called on unions to respect the “sacred period” of school holidays (which in France run from February 4th to March 6th, depending on which zone you are in).

Meanwhile, Philippe Martinez, the head of the hardline CGT union, told RTL that if the government remains stubborn then “there is a possibility of days of action during the school vacations”.

As a result, it is likely that further notices will be filed.  The Local will update this story with the latest – but here’s what we know so far.

January actions

Tuesday, January 31st – this is the next one-day mass strike, which will likely see severe disruption on many services, particularly public transport – full details here.

February actions

Trains – two rail unions – the hardline Sud-Rail and CGT-Cheminots – have filed a renewable strike notice for “mid-February” in addition to a two-day strike which is to take place on Tuesday, February 7th, and Wednesday, and 8th. 

READ MORE: Calendar: The French pension strike dates to remember

Ski resorts – two of the largest unions representing French ski lift operators and seasonal workers, FO (Force ouvrière) and the CGT, have filed “unlimited” strike notices starting on January 31st – the same day that unions across other sectors have called for another ‘mass strike’.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the strike will continue throughout February, but unions say they want to put pressure on the government to discuss both pensions and changes to benefits for seasonal workers, which particularly affect ski industry employees.

The CGT union in particular has threatened further actions during the Ski World Championships, held in Courchevel from February 6th to February 19th. Strikes in ski resorts usually primarily affect the operation of ski lifts. You can read more here.

Oil refinery workers – refinery workers have threatened to strike for a period of 72 hours beginning on February 6th. 

The national union coordinator for French oil giant, TotalEnergies, Eric Sellini, told AFP that these actions would result in “lower throughput” and “the stoppage of shipments.”

The most concrete effect of this is likely to be shortages of petrol and diesel at some filling stations if the blockades are successful in stopping supplies leaving the refineries.

Power cuts – the hardline CGT have also threatened more “direct action” with employees of the State electricity sector threatening to cut the power to certain towns. This isn’t a scheduled action (or indeed a legal one, the government has promised to prosecute workers who do this) but short targeted power cuts could continue into February.

UK border – finally, if you are travelling to or from the UK, be aware that a UK Border Force strike is planned for February 1st and 2nd, which is likely to increase waiting times at the border.

We will update this story as more details are released, and you can also find all the latest in our strike section HERE.

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