Sunday , September 19 2021

Spain may allow in Covid-vaccinated UK tourists if no EU pass agreed

Spain will consider a “green corridor” for vaccinated British tourists if there is no EU agreement on vaccination passports, the country’s tourism minister has said, as the European commission prepared to table a proposal for leaders this month.

Fernando Valdés said his government would seek to find agreement on a common system among the 27 member states to allow tourism to restart, but Madrid would probably open bilateral talks with non-EU countries if that failed.

“Right now we have discussions with our colleagues in the UK,” Valdés told Bloomberg TV. “For us the British market is our main market. But obviously since we are a member of the European Union, the solutions have first to be part of the discussions in the EU.

“And obviously if that cannot be reached, we will be thinking of other corridors like green corridors with third countries that can help us restart tourism flows.”

British tourists spent around £18bn a year in Spain in 2019, making it the most popular holiday destination for UK travellers, but numbers were down by more than 80% in the summer of 2020.

The UK’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, confirmed that discussions were under way with governments and the EU. “We are absolutely working with our international partners on the need for certification in terms of having had a vaccine to be able to travel to another country,” he said during a Downing Street press conference.

“If another country wants to say that you need to have been vaccinated with a recognised vaccine to travel there we want to enable Brits to be able to take that journey. So we are working with international partners, and the EU is part of those discussions, as are several other countries around the world, and it’s obviously important work.”

Hancock said it was crucial to ensure the scheme allows people to travel who have been unable to have a jab in time. “As I understand it from the details set out, the EU proposal is that certification includes both whether you’ve had the vaccine and also whether you’ve recently had a test so those who can’t get vaccinated yet, which is particularly important,” he said. “It matters that we get the details of this right for international travel.”

The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said earlier that she intended to publish draft legislation on 17 March over a “pass” that vaccinated EU citizens could use to travel for work or tourism. Leaders will discuss the issue at a summit eight days later.

“The aim is to gradually enable them to move safely in the EU or abroad – for work or tourism,” Von der Leyen had told a meeting of German conservative politicians on Monday.

She later tweeted: “The aim is to provide: proof that a person has been vaccinated; results of tests for those who couldn’t get a vaccine yet; info on Covid-19 recovery. It will respect data protection, security & privacy.”

The move was welcomed by Spain, Portugal and Greece, and a spokesperson for Boris Johnson said the UK would be interested in discussing the concept with Brussels. The prime minister has said non-essential international travel could be permitted from 17 May if the infection rates continue to fall.

But the proposal for what Von der Leyen described as a “digital green pass” was described as “confusing” by Belgian’s deputy prime minister, who insisted that free movement was a right for all EU citizens.

Sophie Wilmès, who also acts as Belgium’s foreign minister, tweeted: “The idea of a standardised European system that allows each individual to gather pieces of information about one’s vaccination, Covid tests, etc, on a single digital document (certificate) is a good one.

“However, in Mrs Von der Leyen’s proposal, the notion of a ‘pass’ is confusing in relation to the objective that this certificate should pursue. For Belgium, there is no question of linking vaccination to the freedom of movement around Europe. Respect for the principle of non-discrimination is more fundamental than ever since vaccination is not compulsory and access to the vaccine is not yet generalised.”

The Greek government, whose economy is heavily dependent on the tourist industry, has been championing the rollout of a vaccination passport for months, and is at an advanced stage in its talks with the UK government over a bilateral arrangement for the summer.

“We look forward to the commission’s legislative proposal,” Alex Patelis, the chief economic adviser to the Greek prime minister, told the Guardian. “Let’s get this done.”

Last year Greece attracted barely 25% of the record 33.1 million holidaymakers who visited the country in 2019. With a 10% contraction of the economy attributed in large part to the drop, Athens is hoping to attract double that number this year.

An estimated one in five Greeks works in tourism, and the industry accounts for 20% of national output. With that in mind, the centre-right government has already set mid-May as the deadline for the tourist season to formally begin.

A groundbreaking deal that would allow citizens who can prove their vaccination status to travel freely between Israel and Greece is expected to come into force at the end of March.

Greece has also been conducting bilateral talks with the UK, with technical teams now at an “advanced stage” of formulating how vaccine passports will work.

“They are progressing well,” said Patelis, adding that the focus was on creating a standardised, digitised vaccination certificate. “Both countries see eye to eye on the vaccination certificate and share a common desire to restart travel and tourism. The UK is pragmatic in its approach.”

With vaccination rollouts expected to pick up pace, Greek officials say the need for “hassle-free” vaccine passports will become ever more pressing as the demand for travel and a return to normality grow. Last week Greece’s tourism minister flatly denied that the immunity passport would be discriminatory, insisting that it was simply an alternative to having costly CPR tests.

“You could think of the certificate as similar to a boarding pass which contains a unique QR code, or like a green lane that expedites travel,” said Patelis, explaining how the document would work. “The point we have been making is that if we don’t do it jointly at the EU level, someone else, like a tech company, will step in to provide a solution.”

England’s deputy chief medical officer, Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, said that despite the willingness to examine the use of vaccine passports, the prospects for foreign holidays this summer were very unclear.

He said during a No 10 news briefing: “We are still in a zone of great uncertainty about what the virus will do next. On top of that, many of the vaccination programmes in Europe – which is a place where we frequently go on holiday abroad – are running behind ours.

“Clearly, whether we can go on holiday abroad to places such as Europe depends on what other countries will say and do in terms of foreign tourism. There has to be great uncertainty at the moment.”

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