by Giedre Peseckyte
Of all the tools the European Commission has proposed to facilitate travel during the pandemic, only the EU Digital COVID Certificate was effective, the European Court of Auditors (ECA) found.
Following the first cases of COVID-19, in March 2020, the Commission proposed a coordinated approach across the bloc to avoid a patchwork when it comes to travel restrictions.
“This seems like a long time ago now, but this time last year, we still had to show a valid Certificate to board a plane,” ECA member Baudilio Tome Muguruza told a press briefing on Wednesday (11 January), hours before ECA published a special report on COVID.
The report looked at the effectiveness of the tools the Commission proposed to facilitate safe travel during the pandemic, and found that despite the success of the digital COVID certificate, the potential of other tools was not fully unlocked.
“Overall, we conclude that not all EU tools were taken up by member states, and the success of the EU Digital COVID Certificate was not reflected in other tools,” said Muguruza.
The report looked at a contact-tracing gateway, digital passenger locator forms, a platform for EU countries to exchange them, and the EU Digital COVID Certificate. For the development of these tools, the Commission allocated €71 million.
While the COVID certificate facilitated travel across the bloc, “other tools did not have the desired impact because their use was limited,” Muguruza explained.
Only four member states used the EU digital passenger locator form and, of almost 27 million forms issued by February 2022, more than nine in 10 were issued by a single EU country, Italy, ECA found.
In the meantime, the exchange platform was hardly used at all, with only 256 forms by the end of February 2022, all but one from Spain.
“Overall use of the platform for exchanging the forms and the contact-tracing gateway was limited,” Muguruza said.
The uptake of contact-tracing applications varied significantly: By May 2022, the vast majority of data on the gateway was generated by users from Germany alone.
The only tool used across the bloc, EU Digital COVID Certificate, was also introduced in 45 non-EU countries and territories. More than 1.7 billion certificates were issued by the end of March 2022.
“The auditors conclude that only the EU Digital COVID Certificate helped to coordinate travel restrictions between EU countries and was effective in facilitating travel during the COVID- 19 pandemic,” ECA’s press release said.
The weak points
The explanation for such low uptake of other IT tools proposed by the Commission lies in timing and addressing concerns of the member states.
By the time the Commission developed the contact-tracing gateway and the COVID Certificate system, national solutions for passenger locator forms were already available in the member states.
The auditors also noted that the Commission did not manage to overcome certain member states’ reservations about using the EU tools due to data protection and other legal concerns.
Although health is a national competence of EU countries, the auditors praised the fact that the Commission had decided to coordinate action and moved fast to propose suitable solutions to ease travel during the pandemic.
“It was crucial that all EU countries adopt common tools to coordinate free movement
restrictions and facilitate travel despite the unprecedented situation we were faced with,” Muguruza told reporters.
The auditors urged the EU to build on this experience and prepare itself better so that it can face potential future emergencies more successfully.
This includes addressing the lack of specific procedures for the use of these tools in the longer term, or for re-activating them quickly in the event that they are needed again.
For instance, the current legal basis for the EU Digital COVID Certificate expires in June and if it is renewed, it will have to go through the standard EU legislative procedure, auditors highlighted.
*first published in: Euractiv.com