Greece presses case for Covid vaccine passports but other EU states wary

Daniel Boffey in Brussels
·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP/Getty Images

Plans for a vaccine passport to allow people who have had the coronavirus jab to travel freely around Europe will be debated by EU leaders as they meet virtually to coordinate responses to the more contagious Covid variant first identified in the UK.

The proposal is being pushed by the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, but there are serious doubts in other EU capitals about the wisdom of the move. Concerns were aired during a recent meeting of EU health ministers, and key capitals including Berlin are wary of any system that discriminates between those fortunate enough to have received the vaccine and the rest.

Mitsotakis, whose country’s economy is heavily reliant on tourism, has written to the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, in support of the initiative, claiming it will encourage people to get vaccinated.

He wrote that vaccination would not be a prerequisite for travel, but those who could prove they have had the jab would have certainty that they could do so. “Ensuring the quickest possible re-establishment of freedom of movement … is, of necessity, a fundamental priority for us all,” Mitsotakis wrote.

The continuing uncertainty about whether vaccines suppress infection rather than just give immunity is another factor that will be raised during the leaders’ debate next Thursday, sources said.

The World Health Organization’s emergency committee brought forward a meeting that had been due to be held in two weeks to discuss new variants of Covid-19 on Thursday. In his opening remarks, the WHO director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, spoke of his scepticism about the potential for vaccine passports.

He said: “There are two urgent issues which need particular attention, and for which we seek your advice. The first is the recent emergence of new variants of the Sars-CoV-2 virus, and the second is the potential use of vaccination and testing certificates for international travel. One theme ties both issues together: solidarity. We cannot afford to prioritise or punish certain groups or countries.”

The B117 variant of the virus, first identified in the UK, is the greatest source of concern among EU governments. Ireland has been the most heavily hit among the 27 member states but a range of countries have identified cases. EU health ministers were told by officials at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control that there was risk of significant under-reporting of the new variant on the continent.

The mutation was first discovered in the UK by the Covid-19 Genomics Consortium (Cog-UK), led by Prof Sharon Peacock from Cambridge University. The UK consortium has tracked the genetic history of more than 150,000 samples of the Sars-Cov-2 virus, equating to about half the world’s genetic sequencing of coronavirus.

Such research has been undertaken to a far lesser degree by research bodies among the EU member states, prompting the commission to urge health ministries to make detection of the variant a priority.

In its weekly epidemiological update, the WHO said the coronavirus mutation first found in the UK had spread to 50 territories, while a similar South African-identified strain had been found in 20.

A third mutation, originating in the Brazilian Amazon, is being analysed amid fears it could affect the immune response, potentially making vaccines less effective.