Covid passes set to stay as Europe heads for winter
There have been protests and complaints of restricted freedom, but much of Europe is now using Covid passports to enter bars, restaurants, cinemas and museums.
Although England does not require a pass, Scotland has now implemented a vaccine passport, while Italy requires a Covid pass to enter a workplace and Austria is about to follow suit.
Our correspondents around Europe have been getting to grips with the rules.
Italy has adopted arguably the most rigid Covid pass rules in Europe, writes Mark Lowen in Rome. The Green Pass QR code – from at least one Covid vaccination, negative test or proof of recovery – has to be shown for everything from indoor restaurants to cinemas, gyms and intercity trains. It is also required by all employees in the public and private sectors when they turn up for work. Passes are checked regularly and my family, visiting from the UK, were amazed how rigidly Covid rules, including masks, are respected here.
In France it is surprising how quickly the passe sanitaire has become part of daily life, writes Hugh Schofield in Paris. Few think twice now before presenting their mobile phones at bars, cinemas and museums, or on TGV trains and at airports. It is a normalised ritual.
It’s a different story in the Netherlands, writes Anna Holligan. In all the beach bars, restaurants, city cafes and museums I’ve visited since the pass was introduced on 25 September, I have not once been asked to flash my pass. And yet the rules state anyone aged 13 and over has to show a Covid entry pass, although not for shops or sports events.
Denmark actually phased out its coronapas last month, writes Adrienne Murray in Copenhagen. It was first in Europe to adopt a pass in April but has now downgraded Covid-19 to a no longer “socially critical” disease.
In Germany, if you go out to eat or drink, it’s good to know the latest Covid regulation lingo, writes Damien McGuinness in Berlin. Handmade signs with a large 2G have popped up on the doors of many restaurants, cafes and bars. 2G means only people who are either geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered) can go in. No sign means the usual 3G rule applies, which includes negative tests too.
Austrians have used 3G certificates for months, writes Bethany Bell in Vienna. A friend and I went recently to one of my favourite restaurants in Vienna, which serves excellent Wiener Schnitzel and apple strudel. “You have your Green Passes, I suppose?” asked the waiter suspiciously. He glanced briefly at our digital certificates, then handed over the menus. Some establishments check on the passes very strictly, others don’t even bother to ask.
In Switzerland, Covid passes are obligatory and the rules strictly applied, says Imogen Foulkes in Bern. And now that Covid tests aren’t free anymore, going out for a beer gets pretty expensive. The vaccination rate is stagnating at around 62% and the government wants more people to get the jab.
Anna Holligan: After some early consternation, the majority of pragmatic Dutch accepted the pass as a means of resurrecting their social lives while shrugging off social distancing. When I’ve asked waiters or box-office workers if they want to see the QR code proving my vaccination the answers vary from “no, it’s okay, we trust you” to “we don’t actually have the technology”. A recent study by I&O Research found around a third of cafes and restaurants in the Netherlands were not scanning the coronapasses.
Adrienne Murray: Danes are tech-savvy and accepted the app quickly as it offered a quick path out of lockdown. But because the coronapas came in well before people were double-vaccinated it required regular testing. Free test centres sprung up in neighbourhoods all over Copenhagen and towns elsewhere. These have mostly closed now that 75% of over-12s are fully vaccinated and a third booster is being rolled out.
Guy Delauney, Balkans correspondent: I’ve detected little enthusiasm for the passes, travelling through Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and North Macedonia. While one restaurant on the main square in the Macedonian capital Skopje barred entry to people without passes, another had no checks at all. Staff complain of abuse, so a sign or a sticker on a table often acts as a fig leaf for official policies.
Mark Lowen: There’s a stereotype of Italians as a nation not minded to follow rules – but by being hit first in Europe, the pandemic seems to have changed that, and Italy’s “no-vax” movement is relatively small.
There have been some protests. Crowds stormed and smashed up a trade union building and then anti-Green Pass workers staged sit-ins and protests in Trieste, blockading the country’s most important commercial port. Police broke them up with tear gas and water cannon.
Imogen Foulkes: Opponents of the Swiss pass complain the strict policies undermine their constitutional freedoms. There are demonstrations every week, some of which have turned violent. Enough signatures have been gathered to call a referendum on 28 November to abolish the passes. If the Swiss do vote to get rid of them, it could make travel in Europe problematic – as the Swiss pass is recognised across Europe’s passport-free Schengen area.
Hugh Schofield: Of course there are people in France who object on principle to having to prove their credentials at every turn. Every Saturday there are demonstrations in Paris and other cities, bringing together anti-vaxxers with libertarians and protesters against “health discrimination”. Contrary to what some expected, though, these have not turned into a mass movement, and are dwindling in strength.
Anna Holligan: There have been a few challenges in the Netherlands: one failed lawsuit argued the pass was discriminatory because it treated unvaccinated people differently without good reason. Supermodel Doutzen Kroes announced on Instagram that she would not be “forced to take the shot” or “forced to prove my health to participate in society”. But opposition to the pass in the Netherlands appears to be more a matter of principle than practicality.
Bethany Bell: While many Austrians welcomed the passes as a step towards more freedoms, the opposition far-right Freedom Party has championed those who disagree with the measures. Its head, Herbert Kickl, has accused the government of splitting society into “the good vaccinated and the bad unvaccinated”.
Guy Delauney: There have been protests in Slovenia’s capital every Wednesday in recent weeks and some have involved violent confrontations with the police, who have used teargas and water cannon to clear the crowds.
Serbian protesters have also been making themselves heard in Belgrade in recent days – despite the fact that the Covid pass there only applies to bars and restaurants after 22:00. One epidemiologist described that approach as “trying to put out a fire with a glass of water”.
Adrienne Murray: Denmark’s coronapas was agreed across all parliamentary parties, even the opposition, with the promise that it would only be used for a finite time. And it was. Some public protests were held but they were attended by hundreds not thousands.
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Hugh Schofield: The effect of the French passe sanitaire on levels of vaccination seems incontrovertible. From the beginning of August vaccinations shot up. Clearly many who were hesitating decided for the sake of a return to normal-ish life, it was necessary to take the plunge. Today 50 million French people have been totally vaccinated, including 88.4% of over-12s. And since mid-October a second part of the national arm-twist has come into effect: the end of free tests. The passe sanitaire has two options: either show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test. With this second option now incurring a cost, there’ll be a further incentive for vaccination.
Damien McGuinness: Germany has also dropped free antigen tests under its 3G rule, so anyone eligible who refuses the vaccine has to pay. Businesses can now choose for themselves whether to allow unvaccinated customers inside and this 2G rule is seen as a way of encouraging vaccination. It can be a selling point for customers. One Berlin cafe-owner said he had only had one objection from a regular. “I just replied that he had excluded himself by deciding to not get vaccinated,” he told me.
Mark Lowen: Nothing motivates an Italian like threatening to bar them from their favourite trattoria and when compulsory passes were announced there was a sudden spike in vaccination appointments. Italy has some of the highest vaccination rates in Europe, with around 82% having received both doses, but that rate has slowed slightly and 40% of the workers at Trieste port still haven’t been vaccinated, while far-right parties have courted the anti-vax and anti-Green Pass movement.
Guy Delauney: Slovenia has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the EU, and its efforts to implement a Covid pass system initially helped boost take-up. That was until the constitutional court suspended a mandatory pass for public sector workers. Shops and restaurants all display notices reminding customers they need a valid PCT certificate, as it is known. But enforcement is patchy and official inspectors are thin on the ground.
Mark Lowen: They’ll certainly stay in Italy until the end of the year, but possibly in a nod to the protest movement the deputy health minister has said they could be “reassessed” next year if the data continues to show manageable infection numbers, low hospitalisations, and rising vaccine rates. The government says the alternative to compulsory passes is new restrictions, and most Italians will do whatever they can to avoid another lockdown.
Adrienne Murray: The passes in Denmark may have gone but Covid is still here. Cases have recently risen back above 1,000 a day and are expected to go up further. However, there is little trace of the pandemic in everyday life, just the hand gel at the entrance to the supermarket. There’s no social distancing, it’s rare to see anyone in a face mask and guidance to work from home lifted in early August.
Bethany Bell: As of 1 November, Austrians will have to show 3G passes to go to work. And this winter they will also have to show the certificates if they want to go skiing. Passes will be checked when people buy tickets for the ski lifts. And there are even stricter plans for après-ski, where antigen tests will no longer be accepted – only a vaccination certificate, proof of recovery or negative PCR test result will do.
Hugh Schofield: The initial hope was that the passe sanitaire could be phased out in France from mid-November. That is not going to happen. The government is warning that though the Covid situation is vastly improved from two months ago, there are still risks of a winter resurgence. Last week a new health bill passed its first reading in parliament, which would make possible an extension of the passe until July 2022.
Guy Delauney: Coronavirus case numbers have been surging across the Western Balkans, so despite the poor response to Covid passes, governments are likely to try again.