Vaccine passports divide Europe: UK students could face checks as France protests

Debate rages over whether to require vaccines for entry to some venues

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Vaccine passports have become a political flashpoint across Europe as the rate of inoculations stalls and the Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads.

The question of whether vaccination should be required caused protests in Britain, France and Italy at the weekend after their governments drew up plans to bring in vaccine checks at certain venues.

As concern over low uptake among young people increased, the UK government on Monday would not rule out compulsory vaccination for university students.

In Germany, the debate is heating up before a September election which will decide who steers the country through the next phase of the pandemic.

Governments hope that vaccine passports will prevent the need for blanket restrictions in the winter. Critics regard them as an attack on civil liberties and discrimination against the unvaccinated.

What are vaccine passports?

Vaccine passports, in digital or paper format, allow the holders to show that they are fully immunised against the coronavirus.

Health passes such as these are already essential to travel, and systems such as the EU’s Digital Covid Certificate treat negative tests or proof of recent recovery as equivalent to full vaccination.

Some of the measures under discussion in Europe would go further by making proof of vaccination the only option.

Other measures would discourage the use of tests in this way, with France set to abolish free screening and Belgium shortening the period for which a negative result is valid.

Britain: Nightclubs and football grounds face checks

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last week that full vaccination would be necessary for entry to nightclubs and other crowded venues from September.

He said that proof of a negative test would no longer be sufficient as the government urged younger people to take their vaccines.

A crowd of protesters packed London’s Trafalgar Square on Saturday, where menacing words aimed at doctors and nurses met with criticism.

Mr Johnson did not give details of which crowded places would be covered by the rules, but Premier League football grounds are thought to be among them.

Speaking on Monday, junior education minister Vicky Ford did not rule out reports in British media that students would be compelled to take vaccines.

“One does need to look at every practicality to make sure that we can get students back [to their studies] safely and make sure that we can continue to prioritise education,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The new rules for nightclubs will come in once everybody over 18 has had a chance to receive two doses.

Until then, ministers are encouraging venues to use an existing National Health Service pass which treats negative tests as equal to vaccination.

France: Passports approved despite protests

With Covid cases rising rapidly in France, President Emmanuel Macron plans to make a health pass compulsory for entry to restaurants, cafes and shopping centres beginning in August.

The pass is already required for museums, cinemas and other venues that accommodate more than 50 people.

While negative tests will still be acceptable, free testing will no longer be available from September.

Mr Macron’s plan, which led to a record surge in bookings after it was unveiled, was approved by France’s Parliament on Sunday.

A compromise in Parliament means health workers will not automatically lose their jobs but their salaries will be suspended if they do not co-operate.

The move triggered fierce opposition, with more than 160,000 people at rallies at the weekend that ended in dozens of arrests.

Commenting on the protests, Mr Macron said people who refused to be vaccinated were selfish and irresponsible.

Germany: Debate heats up as election looms

German politicians were divided at the weekend after an aide to Chancellor Angela Merkel caused a stir by saying that “vaccinated people will definitely have more freedom than unvaccinated people”.

Helge Braun told a Sunday newspaper that people who lack proof of vaccination would have to reduce their contacts if infection numbers continue to rise.

He said that even a negative test may not allow the unvaccinated to enter restaurants, cinemas and stadiums because “the risk is too high”.

But with Mrs Merkel set to leave office after September’s election, it may be up to her successor to settle the issue.

Armin Laschet, the candidate of Mrs Merkel’s centre-right bloc, signalled his opposition to stringent vaccine requirements on Sunday.

“I don’t believe in compulsory vaccinations and I don’t believe we should put indirect pressure on people to get vaccinated,” he said.

Winfried Kretschmann, a regional premier from the opposition Greens, said the Delta variant could make new rules more attractive.

While a requirement to get a vaccine is not planned, “I can’t rule out compulsory vaccinations for all time,” he said.

Italy: Pass becomes mandatory next month

Italy will require its Green Pass for entry to venues including cinemas, restaurants and indoor swimming pools from August 6.

The announcement led to a boom in vaccine bookings, which were up by 200 per cent in some places.

An extension of the EU’s Digital Covid Certificate, the Green Pass allows people to show a negative test instead of their vaccination status.

Thousands of people protested in streets across Italy on Saturday chanting slogans such as “no to dictatorship”.

Businesses could be fined for failing to enforce the rules, while a proposal to require the pass for train travel will be considered in September.

Cases are rising rapidly in Italy, and health experts said the Delta variant is spreading.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi said tougher restrictions could come back if vaccine uptake is too low. “No vaccines mean a new lockdown,” he said.

Updated: July 26, 2021, 1:26 PM