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Questions & Answers on the new Commission proposal for a Council Recommendation to facilitate safe free movement during the COVID-19 pandemic

Met dank overgenomen van Europese Commissie (EC), gepubliceerd op donderdag 25 november 2021.
  • Why was this proposal adopted?

Since June 2021, vaccine uptake has increased significantly and the rollout of the EU Digital COVID Certificate has progressed at a rapid pace, with more than 650 million certificates having been issued. As a result, the EU Digital COVID Certificate is a widely available and reliably accepted tool to facilitate free movement during the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost all Member States also use the EU Digital COVID Certificate for domestic purposes.

At the same time, the epidemiological situation within the EU, characterised by a high and increasing overall case notification rate, remains challenging.

In view of these developments, the Commission proposes to adapt the common approach set out in Council Recommendation (EU) 2020/1475. In particular, a person's COVID-19 vaccination, test or recovery status, as evidenced by an EU Digital COVID Certificate, should be the key determinant. As EU Digital COVID Certificates can be safely issued, verified and accepted, the Commission proposes that persons travelling within the EU who are in the possession of a valid EU Digital COVID Certificate should in principle not be subject to additional restrictions to free movement, such as further tests for COVID-19 infection or quarantine.

To avoid diverging measures across the EU, the Commission also proposes, for the purpose of travel, a validity period of 9 months for vaccination certificates since the completion of the primary vaccination series. This takes into account the guidance of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) regarding the administration of booster doses as of 6 months, and provides for an additional period of 3 months to ensure that national vaccination campaigns can adjust and citizens can have access to boosters. To ensure a coordinated approach, Member States should not accept such vaccination certificates if more than 9 months have passed since the date of vaccination indicated. At this stage, the Commission does not propose a validity period for certificates issued based on booster shots.

In addition, the Commission proposes to adapt the traffic light map published weekly by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, in order to take into account the effects of increased vaccination. Other parts of the proposal concern the coordination of measures in response to the emergence of possible new coronavirus variants or other serious epidemiological situations.

As the proposal will need to be discussed in and adopted by the Council, the proposed recommendations are still subject to change.

  • What are the main changes in the new Recommendation as proposed by the Commission?

The key updates, proposed by the Commission, are:

  • Focus on a ‘person-based approach': a person in possession of a valid EU Digital COVID Certificate should in principle not be subject to additional restrictions, such as tests or quarantine, regardless of their place of departure in the EU. Persons without an EU Digital COVID Certificate could be asked for a test carried out prior to or after arrival.
  • Standard validity of vaccination certificates: To avoid diverging and disruptive approaches, the Commission proposes a standard acceptance period of 9 months for vaccination certificates issued after the completion of the primary vaccination series. This means that, in the context of travel, Member States should not refuse a vaccination certificate that has been issued less than 9 months since the administration of the last dose of the primary vaccination. Member States should immediately take all necessary steps to ensure access to vaccination for those population groups whose previously issued vaccination certificates approach the 9-month limit.
  • Booster shots: As of yet, there are no studies expressly addressing the effectiveness of boosters on transmission of COVID-19 and therefore it is not possible to determine an acceptance period for boosters. However, given the emerging data, it can reasonably be expected that protection from booster vaccinations may last longer than that resulting from the primary series. The Commission will closely monitor newly emerging scientific evidence on this issue. On the basis of such evidence, the Commission may, if needed, propose an appropriate acceptance period also for vaccination certificates issued following a booster.
  • The EU traffic light map is adapted, combining new cases (incidence rate) with a region's vaccine uptake and a testing rate. The map would be mainly for information, but would also serve to coordinate measures for areas with particularly low (‘green') or particularly high level (‘dark red') of circulation of the virus. For these areas, specific rules would apply by derogation from the ‘persons-based approach'. For travel from ‘green' areas, that would mean that no restrictions should be applied. Travel to and from ‘dark red' areas should be discouraged, given the high number of new infections there, and persons who are neither vaccinated nor have recovered from the virus should be required to test prior to departure and quarantine after arrival (with special rules for essential travellers and children).
  • Exemptions from certain travel restrictions: should apply to cross-border commuters, children under 12 and essential travellers. The list of essential travellers should be reduced, as many travellers included in the current list have had the opportunity to be vaccinated in the meantime.
  • Simplified ‘emergency brake' procedure: the emergency procedure intended to delay the spread of possible new COVID-19 variants or address particularly serious situations should be simplified and more operational. It would include a Member State notification to the Commission and the Council and a roundtable at the Council's Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR).
  • What are the criteria used by ECDC to mark a region in the different colours?

Taking into account the progress in terms of vaccine uptake, the Commission proposes to adapt the criteria and thresholds used for the traffic light map. The criterion of new cases should be weighted by the vaccine uptake in the same region, to take into account that vaccination reduces the risk of transmitting COVID-19. The testing rate constitutes a third criterion.

The resulting weighted rate should be assigned a colour-code using the thresholds of the risk assessment model developed by ECDC. The colours of the current map, ‘green', ‘orange', ‘red' and ‘dark red' would be maintained. Regions with an insufficient testing rate would be shown in ‘dark grey', and those with insufficient data in ‘grey'.

The details of the adapted traffic light map are set out in the Annex to the Commission's proposal.

  • What is an ‘emergency brake' and when can it be used?

The ‘emergency brake' procedure is intended to allow for a coordinated response to the emergence of new coronavirus variants assessed as ‘of concern' or ‘of interest' (more information here). In addition, it is intended to provide for a coordinated response to case where the epidemiological situation worsens quickly, in particular in areas already classified as ‘dark red'.

According to the Commission's proposal, this procedure could be triggered either by a Member State or the Commission. This would then result in a roundtable of the Council's integrated political crisis response mechanism being called, where the Member State or the Commission could outline why the procedure was triggered. Based on a proposal by the Commission, the roundtable could conclude that certain coordinated measures should be taken by Member States, in particular to delay the spread of a new variant.

  • Can EU Member States refuse entry to people travelling from another EU Member State?

Member States should always admit their own nationals and EU citizens and their family members who reside in their territory. In addition, Member States should in principle not refuse the entry of other persons travelling from other Member States, and should facilitate swift transit through their territories.

Any restrictions to the fundamental right to free movement of persons within the EU must be applied in compliance with the general principles of EU law, in particular proportionality and non-discrimination. Any measures taken should thus not extend beyond what is strictly necessary to safeguard public health. Only very exceptional situations, such as the emergency of a new variant of concern, could thus justify denying entry to EU citizens who do not reside in the Member State concerned.

  • Can booster doses be included in the EU Digital COVID Certificate?

Most Member States have already announced or have already started to administer COVID-19 vaccine booster doses. An EU Digital COVID Certificate must be issued after the administration of each dose. This means that Member States must also issue a vaccination certificate in the EU Digital COVID Certificate format after the administration of an additional dose.

On 17 November 2021, the Commission adopted standard rules on how to encode a booster dose in the EU Digital COVID Certificate: a booster following a two-dose vaccine will be reflected as “3/3” in the certificate and a booster following a single-dose vaccine will be reflected as “2/2”.

  • What about the validity of vaccination certificates?

Over 65% of the EU population is today better protected from falling seriously ill and dying from COVID-19 as a result of the currently available COVID-19 vaccines, which offer protection against severe disease, loss of life and long-term consequences from infection.

However, linked to the emerging evidence that the protection from infection with COVID-19 resulting from vaccination appears to decrease over time, several Member States have also adopted rules on how long a vaccination certificate should be accepted.

To ensure a coordinated approach, the Commission proposes a standard acceptance period for vaccination certificates of 9 months issued after the completion of the primary vaccination series. This takes into account the guidance of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control regarding the administration of booster doses as of 6 months, and provides for an additional period of 3 months to ensure that national vaccination campaigns can adjust and citizens can have access to boosters. To ensure a coordinated approach, Member States should not accept such vaccination certificates if more than 9 months have passed since the date of vaccination.

At this stage, the Commission does not propose a validity period for certificates issued based on booster shots. This means that the 9-month validity period should not apply to certificates issued following booster shots. It can reasonably be expected that protection from booster vaccinations may last longer than that resulting from the primary vaccination series. The Commission will closely monitor newly emerging scientific evidence on this issue. On this basis, the Commission may, at a later stage, propose if necessary to use a validity period also for vaccination certificates issued following a booster.

  • The Commission proposes for the updates to the Recommendation apply as of 10 January 2022. Does it mean that the new validity rules, if agreed by the Council, would also apply as of that date?

To allow for sufficient time for the coordinated approach to be implemented, the Commission is indeed proposing that the updates to the common approach, including on the validity of vaccination certificates, should apply as of 10 January 2022.

For example, a vaccination certificate that indicates, as the date of vaccination with the second dose of a two-dose primary vaccination series, 15 May 2021 should be accepted until 15 February 2022. After that date, the holder can either travel on the basis of the vaccination certificate issued following the booster shot (which would currently not be subject to a validity period at this stage) or on the basis of a test certificate.

A vaccination certificate which indicates, as the date of vaccination with the second dose of a two-dose primary vaccination series, 15 February 2021 should not be accepted when the validity rules start to apply on 10 January 2022 (as the 9 months already lapsed on 15 November 2021). As of 10 January 2022, the holder can travel on the basis of a test certificate.

Member States should immediately take all necessary steps to ensure access to vaccination for those population groups whose previously issued vaccination certificates approach the limit of 9 months

  • What happens if I do not have the EU Digital COVID Certificate yet?

The EU Digital COVID Certificate Regulation states that possession of an EU Digital COVID Certificate must not be a precondition for exercising the right to free movement.

To ensure this, the Commission proposes that persons not in the possession of an EU Digital COVID Certificate should not be prevented from travelling, but could be required to undergo a test for COVID-19 infection prior to or after arrival to reduce the risk of imported infections. In addition, they might be required to undergo quarantine/self-isolation when they arrive from particularly affected areas (dark red).

  • Does the proposal provide for exemptions for essential travellers or other groups particularly affected by travel restrictions?

The Commission proposes to maintain a list of categories that should be exempt from the need to have an EU Digital COVID Certificate when travelling. This list is the following:

  • transport workers or transport service providers, including drivers and crew of freight vehicles;
  • patients travelling for imperative medical reasons;
  • seafarers; and
  • persons living in border regions and travelling across the border on a daily or frequent basis for the purposes of work, business, education, family, medical care or caregiving.

The Commission proposes to shorten the list currently applicable, given that many essential travellers have had the opportunity to be vaccinated in the meantime.

In addition, transport workers and transport service providers should also not be required to have a test or to undergo quarantine when travelling from ‘dark red' areas, given the impact of requirements on the internal market. Even if the emergency brake is triggered, transport workers and transport service providers should only be required to undergo rapid antigen tests, if needed.

  • Are there any specific rules for children travelling within the EU?

The Commission proposes that Member States agree on the following rules regarding children travelling within the EU:

  • children below the age of 12 should not be required to be in the possession of an EU Digital COVID Certificate or a negative test when travelling from areas other than ‘dark red' ones;
  • children from 6 to 12 arriving from ‘dark red' areas should be in the possession of an EU Digital COVID Certificate or a negative test;
  • children below the age of 6 arriving from ‘dark red' areas should be exempt from the requirement to undergo travel-related tests for COVID-19 infection.

For more information

Press release: Commission proposes to update rules on travel in the EU

Factsheet on the new Commission proposal to ensure coordination on safe travel in the EU

Factsheet COVID-19: Travel and health measures in the EU

Proposal for a Council Recommendation on a coordinated approach to facilitate safe free movement during the COVID-19 pandemic and replacing Recommendation (EU) 2020/1475

The EU Digital COVID Certificate: a global standard with more than 591 million certificates

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