Binding Acceptance Period of Nine Months for EU Digital COVID-19 Vaccination Certificates
14 January 2022
The European Commission has adopted Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2021/2288, amending the Annex to Regulation (EU) 2021/953 as regards the acceptance period of vaccination certificates issued in the EU Digital COVID Certificate format indicating the completion of the primary vaccination series. This introduces a harmonised nine-month period of validity of vaccination certificates across the EU. The new rules will become applicable from 1 February 2022.
The European Commission has imposed a binding acceptance period of nine months (that is, 270 days) of the EU Digital COVID Certificate for the purposes of intra-EU travel. This means that these travel certificates will be valid across the EU for that period of time. The chosen validity period takes into account the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s guidance, whereby booster doses should be administered within six months of completion of the first vaccination cycle. An additional three-month grace period is included in the acceptance period chosen by the Commission, to allow for national particularities in the availability of booster doses.
New Regulation 2021/2288 does not cover travellers from third countries entering the EU. For such travellers, the EU recommendation remains that the following categories of persons should be allowed to travel into the EU under certain conditions: vaccinated persons; essential travellers; and non-essential travellers from countries on the EU's list. In the case of vaccinated travellers, if Member States accept proof of vaccination to waive travel restrictions such as testing or quarantine, they should in principle lift restrictions on non-essential travel for third-country travellers who have received the last recommended dose of a vaccine approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), at least 14 days before the traveller’s arrival.
Hong Kong traders may like to know that the EU digital COVID certificate Regulation provides the basis for treating non-EU country vaccination certificates as equivalent to EU certificates. Where the EU is satisfied that a non-EU country issues certificates in compliance with standards and systems that are interoperable with the EU system, the EU can adopt a decision on the basis of which such non-EU country certificates would be accepted according to the same conditions as EU digital COVID certificates. So far, a number of non-EU countries and territories have joined the EU digital COVID certificate system. This means that the certificates issued in those countries and territories are accepted in the EU under the same conditions as the EU digital COVID certificate. Likewise, the EU digital COVID certificate is accepted by those countries and territories. In any case, the rules for acceptance of proof of vaccination are the same as for EU nationals: vaccines that have received EU-wide marketing authorisation have to be accepted, but EU countries can decide to also accept vaccines approved by the WHO.
New Regulation 2021/2288, which concerns intra-EU travel, also modifies the rules on the encoding of vaccination certificates. This enables vaccination certificates to distinguish between the completion of a first vaccination cycle and the administration of a booster dose. A booster dose administered following a primary two-dose vaccination series will be recorded as “3/3”, and a booster dose administered following a single-dose vaccination will be recorded as “2/1”.
The new rules laid down in Regulation 2021/2288 are applicable from 1 February 2022, so as to ensure a smooth transition. The rules on the acceptance period apply for the purposes of travel within the internal market. They are not obligatory for other uses of the certificates within the territories of the Member States. However, the Commission recommends that the acceptance period be adopted at national level as well, so as to avoid confusion and provide certainty for users.
Hong Kong traders may be interested to know that the new rules were adopted following the European Council meeting of 16 December 2021, where calls for clearer and more uniform travel rules within the internal market were made. The importance of coordinated travel rules was also highlighted by the European Commission as vital to ensuring the functioning of the internal market and achieving a high level of legal certainty for European citizens. Free movement is both a fundamental right of EU citizens and a foundational pillar of the internal market.
These points were emphasised by the Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, who stated that “[a] harmonised validity period for the EU Digital COVID Certificate is a necessity for safe free movement and EU level coordination. The strength and success of this invaluable tool for citizens and business lies in its coherent use across the EU.” The Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, concurred: “The acceptance period of nine months for vaccination certificates will give citizens and businesses the certainty they need when planning their travels with confidence. It's now up to the Member States to ensure boosters will be rolled out swiftly to protect our health and ensure safe travelling.”
Hong Kong traders are likely familiar with the EU Digital COVID Certificate, as established by Regulation (EU) 2021/953 on 14 June 2021. The certificate enables those within the EU to travel safely whilst upholding a high level of compatibility with EU fundamental principles of free movement in the pandemic context. The initiative has, it is claimed, been very successful. Indeed, 807 million certificates have been issued throughout the EU so far, and travel rules beyond the EU have been influenced by this model: 60 countries and territories across five continents have now joined this system.
At the time of adoption of Regulation 2021/953 in June 2021, no reliable scientific evidence establishing the period of time vaccines would provide protection for was available. Therefore, the Regulation did not provide any data fields on acceptance period and the question was left to the Member States to regulate individually. Several Member States adopted such rules, especially in the context of the booster-dose roll-out, as it has been observed that the protective effects of the vaccine decline over time. However, these developments are now taken into account, leading the Commission to adopt the new and harmonised acceptance period. As such, the EU rules governing COVID-19 travel certificates are now based on objective criteria stemming from all available scientific evidence.
Please click on the following link for more information on the new rules relating to the EU’s Digital COVID-19 vaccination certificates.
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