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EU leaders feel mounting pressure over handling of Covid pandemic

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An employee is at work at packaging line of the factory of US multinational pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc in Puurs on Monday. AFP

EU leaders feel mounting pressure over handling of Covid pandemic

EU leaders were set to meet on February 25 under pressure to speed up Europe’s coronavirus vaccine rollout, and divided over border closures and what introducing vaccine travel certificates could mean.

The video summit for the leaders of the 27-nation bloc comes a year into the Covid-19 crisis, as most of the EU is experiencing a second wave of cases – or a third wave for some – that stubbornly won’t diminish.

And the member states now face outbreaks of more contagious variants from Britain and South Africa.

Brussels has warned six governments, including Germany’s, about unilateral border restrictions, while tourist-dependent countries are piling on the pressure to lift travel barriers in time for summer vacations.

After a sluggish start to the EU vaccination rollout – largely because the EU’s plan was dependent on the vaccine from drugs giant AstraZeneca, which under-delivered – European capitals hope supplies will surge from April as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna ramp up production.

A one-shot vaccine by Johnson & Johnson could also be approved by mid-March.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told the German regional daily Augsburger Allgemeine that, despite the friction with AstraZeneca, “vaccine manufacturers are our partners in this pandemic”.

Her goal is to have 70 per cent of adults in the EU vaccinated by mid-September.

Just four per cent of the bloc’s 450 million people have received at least one jab, according to an AFP tally of official figures – and only two per cent have been fully vaccinated with two jabs.

But thoughts are already turning to vaccine certificates.

Several EU officials and diplomats warned on February 24 that, while they back a verifiable vaccination record, it is too early to look at using “vaccine passports” to permit easier travel.

One senior EU diplomat told journalists: “We still do not have advice from the health authorities [about] what the vaccine does and does not do – Can you still contaminate others if you have been vaccinated? I don’t know.

“What happens to those who have not been vaccinated? What procedure do they have to go through to be able to enter a country? I think this is still under discussion.”

France and Germany, notably, are opposed, fearing a travel schism between a minority of vaccinated haves and a majority of unvaccinated have-nots.

However, preliminary EU talks have already started with the International Air Travel Association (IATA), which is about to launch its IATA Travel Pass, an app that stores vaccine data.

Meanwhile Greece has indicated it is ready to move faster than its EU peers, and has already struck a bilateral travel agreement with Israel, the world’s vaccination champion.

It is reportedly in similar talks with former EU country Britain, where bookings of low-cost flights to Greece, Spain and Turkey soared on February 23 after London said curbs on foreign leisure travel could be lifted as early as mid-May.

The senior EU diplomat acknowledged that all EU countries were “eager” to find a safe way to reopen travel in time for the June-to-September tourist season, but said: “We have to move this forward together.”

An EU official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, was blunter, saying the EU wants to avoid “a new death season”.

Brussels is also concerned the emergence of worrying variants could require retooled booster shots, which would in turn mean vaccine certificates would have to be constantly updated.

A more pressing problem than the certificates, though, are the severe border restrictions put in place by several EU countries to curb the virus variants, which the commission sees as disproportionate.

It has written warning letters to Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary and Sweden about their measures, giving them until late next week to respond.

Another EU diplomat said: “In this instance we needed to underscore the rules we have collectively signed on to.”

The EU official said that, without the commission’s intervention, such restrictions “could be worse than what we see today”.

He added that he expected “quite a lively discussion between the member states” on that issue.

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