Prof. Simone Bertoli is Professor of Economics at Université Clermont Auvergne (CERDI) in France and a Research Fellow at the Institute of Labor Economics in Germany.
Cross-border mobility remains extremely low, but what can we expect for Europe and the UK in the coming months? Across the EU, countries have been blamed for slow vaccine rollouts (which are mostly related to pharmaceutical companies being unable to deliver agreed-upon doses), and they certainly are lagging far behind countries such as Israel and the UK. However, for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, vaccination campaigns are offering concrete hope for the possibility of restrictions on international mobility being lifted. Nevertheless, concrete does not mean immediate. In late March the UK government announced new legislation which should remain in place at least until mid-May which will see anyone who travels abroad without a valid justification being fined up to GBP 5,000 — this owing to resurgences of the virus in several countries in continental Europe.
The difficult political question is how to handle the transition between now and the time when most of the adult population will be vaccinated, which is likely to be towards the end of the third quarter of 2021. Should the EU introduce so-called vaccine passports, as some member states that are more dependent on international tourism revenues are proposing, to what extent will these documents go beyond being a useful (and uncontroversial) way of sharing health-related information across countries, possibly establishing a privileged (unrestricted) mobility route for vaccinated individuals?
This latter potential outcome raises numerous questions — both ethical and legal, and its medical justification remains unclear. The scientific evidence is inconclusive regarding the extent to which vaccinated individuals could remain contagious and continue to spread the Covid-19 virus. From an ethical perspective (and this is the major objection put forward by France and Germany), can a vaccine passport be introduced when large portions of the population simply do not yet have access to vaccinations, for instance, because of their age? From a legal perspective, what would be the situation of families with children, as no vaccine has been authorized for individuals below the age of 16?
While vaccine passports may at first appear to be a convenient shortcut for increasing cross-border mobility, the road to their application is paved with numerous major hurdles. In the EU, it is doubtful that all the member states will reach an agreement on this issue before the herd immunity induced by the vaccination campaign will make it redundant. This, however, does not rule out the possibility that a subset of countries could strike bilateral agreements with EU member states and other nations. The recent call for a global treaty for pandemics, made by 24 world leaders, including those of France, Germany, and the UK, is a glimmer of hope.