Ministers in Switzerland and Israel have been discussing the idea of a vaccine passport for travellers, while the issue will also be discussed at an EU level at the next European Council meeting, but in France there has been a more cautious reception.
There is no current plan for vaccine passports, but several government sources have told French media that the idea is being discussed.
The French government on Wednesday opened up an online consultation so that people can have their say. Find out how to get involved here for the consultation, which runs until March 7th.
— Gouvernement (@gouvernementFR) February 17, 2021
Here's what the stumbling blocks are likely to be:
Transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, asked about vaccine passports, declared the discussion “premature”.
He told a tourism summit: “The idea of restricting movement to only people who are vaccinated is a debate that seems premature to us – you have 4 to 5 percent of the European population vaccinated, the most vulnerable people and not those who are likely to travel a lot. Making travel conditional on being vaccinated is an ethical issue and not a small one.”
While some countries including Israel are forging ahead with their vaccine plans, Europe is moving at a slower pace so the number of people who could benefit from vaccine passports is at present low. As Djebbari pointed out, at present this mostly includes people who may not be likely to travel anyway such as nursing home residents and those with severe medical conditions.
France's vaccine rollout, after a very slow start, is beginning to pick up speed but the general population who don't fall into priority groups such as the elderly, the ill or keyworkers are unlikely to be offered the vaccine before late spring/early summer.
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The idea of a vaccine passport is an appealing one in that it allows countries to keep control their borders while also receiving the economic benefits of travel, but it's also something that has not been widely tried before, so there is a lack of evidence on how it works.
New variants of Covid are likely to continue to emerge and it is not clear exactly low long vaccines offer protection for.
“We don't know what the protective capacity of vaccines is over time – six months, a year? Is it really certain that people who are vaccinated no longer transmit the virus? And what about future variants, which could make a vaccine ineffective,” a health ministry source told French TV channel BFM.
The French government is likely to want more evidence of exactly how much protection a vaccine passport offers before reopening its borders.
The majority of the population in France have not yet been offered the vaccine, so ministers are concerned that blocking people from certain activities when they currently have no option to be vaccinated is unfair.
Europe Minister Clément Beaune said on France Info: “It would be shocking, while this vaccination campaign is still underway everywhere in Europe, that there would be more rights for some people than for others. This is not our conception of protection and access to vaccines.”
Culture minister Roselyn Bachelot, speaking on France 2, put it in stronger terms, saying: “I remain opposed to the vaccination passport, which I believe is an infringement of our freedoms.
“As a freedom-lover, I can hardly imagine it! If it came to that, it would be a step backwards.”
Despite this, a poll for newspaper Le Parisien showed that 60 percent of people were in favour of the general idea of vaccine passports for the purposes of international travel.
The Covid vaccine is not compulsory in France, and this is a sensitive issue for the country.
France has a historically high level of vaccine scepticism and this has not changed during the pandemic, with at one point 60 percent of people telling pollsters that they did not intend to be vaccinated – a huge problem for the country since immunity requires a minimum of 60 percent of the population to be vaccinated.
Polling conducted since the vaccine rollout began has seen a fall in scepticism, with now around half of people saying they definitely intend to be vaccinated and a larger percentage saying only that they have some doubts or questions about the vaccine but might choose to be vaccinated anyway.
Nevertheless it remains a delicate issue and ministers want to avoid any suggestion that people are being coerced into getting vaccinated – vaccine targets in France are spoken of in terms of 'offering' the vaccine to those who want it.
The idea of having a vaccine passport – particularly for non-travel related services such as accessing cultural venues, sports centres or even bars – has been described by some as an “attack on liberty”, since it may be seen as compelling people to be vaccinated.
None of this is to say that a vaccine passport will not happen, but people who are lucky enough to have been vaccinated should probably not count on it happening in the short term.
It is also likely that there would need to be extensive debate and consultation, given the ethical issues raised, of which the online consultation is only the first step.
A spokesman for Health Minister Olivier Véran said: “This question is profoundly societal and political, and there will therefore be consultation, one way or another.”