Friday, 7 May 2021
European Digital Green Certificate: Statements
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, to the Chamber. It is great to have him here and it is nice to be having a positive discussion connected to the pandemic about reopening and getting back to travelling. This is good not just for the economic benefits for the country, but it is also good for people to get to see family and friends and to be able to move more freely. Freedom of movement across the EU is something that we took for granted before the pandemic and I believe we will place an even greater value on this when we get back to travelling once again.
Members will be aware that the digital green certificate is an EU proposal for a way to facilitate safe travel for our citizens within the EU during the pandemic. The intention is to provide official, digital or paper proof that a person has either been vaccinated against Covid-19, has had a negative test or has recovered from Covid-19. Ireland, as a member state, intends to have the framework ready by the summer, and other members states are planning to do the same. Now that the member states have agreed their position, they must engage with the European Parliament and negotiate the final version of the regulation. My MEP colleagues, Billy Kelleher and Barry Andrews, are actively involved in that negotiation and the debate at the EU Parliament level.
The European Union Parliament and our MEPs had an extensive debate on the digital green certificate and they have addressed many of the key issues and concerns that people in Ireland and in other members have, rightly, been raising. First, they discussed the name "digital green certificate", and I would agree that it is quite confusing as to what this actually is. There appears to be support to rename it as the "EU Covid-19 certificate". One would know more quickly what this means than the original name. There was also extensive debate on how long the certificates should be in operation, with the majority of MEPs agreeing that a 12-month limit was appropriate. I also believe this is appropriate. There should be a sunset clause on this and it should not be something that lasts indefinitely. This is a sensible suggestion and we can look at reviewing things in 12 months' time. We have to be honest that this is an extra layer to travelling and some citizens will view it as a restriction on their rights as EU citizens to move freely across member states. This is why it is important to not require the certificates for an indefinite period and that we have a review point.
There was an interesting debate around the potential economic unfairness of requiring testing where the cost in some member states might be prohibitive. MEPs made a strong call for free testing to be made available to citizens to avoid any monetary barrier where the cost of testing is very high. This measure is also intended to avoid discriminating against a person who is not vaccinated, remembering that some people may not be able to get vaccinated for medical reasons or other legitimate reasons.
At the conclusion of the debate the measure was passed by a large majority with a final vote of 540 votes in favour, 119 against and 31 abstentions. This is a very strong majority in the Parliament, following a lengthy debate, to support this proposal. I believe there is equally strong support here in Ireland, if not stronger, to put in place a pathway back to safe international travel for our citizens. As an island nation, we cannot close ourselves off from the world forever. As a small open economy, we need international travel and movement of people across the EU and indeed the globe for our economy to function. Yes, it is a barrier to travel but it is also an important protection for public health. Every effort will be made to make this as seamless as possible with the least amount of disruption to travellers. No system is perfect and the main thing we need to watch out for is that we do not discriminate against those who may not be able to afford expensive tests. We must, therefore, find a solution to that issue to make sure affordable testing is available to everyone.
There are still reasonable questions around the remaining unknowns during this issue. How long will a person be immune having recovered from Covid-19? What length of cover do each of the European Medicines Agency, EMA, approved vaccines provide? These are questions we cannot answer yet. What position will the EU take in relation to WHO approved vaccines that have yet to be approved by the EMA? In my view, the EU should be flexible and if the WHO has given approval for a vaccine, that should be sufficient to qualify for a digital green certificate or whatever it may end up being called.
Negotiations between the European Parliament, based on its priorities, and the European Council are to start in the next week or so. The plan is to conclude the negotiations by June and give member states six weeks to implement the new system. Some concerns have been expressed here in Ireland that we would not be ready on time, but I am confident that we can be ready, and that we will be ready if the will is there on the Department and the Government side to make this happen on time.EU countries, including Ireland, are currently developing their domestic software for digital green certificates in tandem with the legislation being negotiated at a European level. We need to have that software ready because we will be mandated to provide these certificates to people when they request them.
At this point, we are all wondering what this will mean in practice for travel this year. It is too early to say what the practical implications will be, but the public want to see a safe return to international travel. I urge caution, but the time is right to open up our country and move towards movement of people. Our aviation, hospitality and tourism sectors all need it. I urge the Departments of Health and Foreign Affairs and the Government to make sure we are the leader rather than the laggard among European states and get this delivered on time for our citizens.