After months of lockdown, housebound Brits this week finally saw their European holiday dreams turn from distant fantasy into a bookable reality.
“We have informed the British government that from May 1 we will facilitate the arrival of British nationals who have been vaccinated... so they can visit Cyprus without a negative test or needing to quarantine,” deputy tourism minister Savvas Perdios said on Thursday night.
Although the measure would come into force two weeks before people in England will legally be allowed to travel abroad, the announcement followed just days after the EU confirmed it was working on plans for a Digital Green Pass, or vaccine passport, for tourism and work.
Not only would the pass be up and running in time for the summer holidays, according to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, but Brits would likely benefit from the scheme.
EU leaders had agreed last week to work on vaccine certificates, with southern member states such as Spain and Greece particularly keen to unlock tourism this summer.
While von der Leyen delivered the good news, health commissioner Stella Kyriakide was left to deliver the hard reality. “Vaccine rollouts must follow as well so there are no gaps and no vaccines are left unused,” she told a news conference.
The remarks were both a statement of the obvious and a coded warning: before Europe can let British holidaymakers in, it must first let its own curfew-weary residents out, many of whom are facing more, not less, Covid-19 restrictions.
“We are seeing a resurgence in central and eastern Europe. New cases are also on the rise in several western European countries where rates were already high,” WHO Europe’s regional director Hans Kluge warned on Thursday.
After six weeks of falling infections in Europe, new cases have risen by around 9% in the past few weeks.
“This brought a promising six-week decline in new cases to an end, with more than half of our region seeing increasing numbers of new infections,” Kluge said.
The surge in cases due to new variants is already forcing countries to tear up their own plans for traditional Easter celebrations, with Spain and Italy among countries weighing up how to manage the annual festivals.
Don’t come...It’s not the time Christian Estrosi, mayor of Nice
In Italy, where cases have risen 25% in the first four days of this week by comparison with the same period last week, the government on Tuesday ordered the closure of all schools in hardest hit areas, and extended curbs on businesses and movement until after Easter.
In Greece, which has been among EU nations pushing hardest for the reopening of travel to revive tourism, the government on Wednesday extended a lockdown and tightened restrictions in more areas, after a surge in new infections piled pressure on its health system.
With 6,597 deaths, Greece has fared better than other European countries since its first case was reported a year ago. But despite a lockdown in Athens for more than two weeks, infections have shown no sign of receding.
“The health system is under unbearable pressure,” health minister Vassilis Kikilias told a news briefing this week.
Germany this week also extended its lockdown by three weeks, with the British variant of Covid-19 now accounting for 46% of infections in the country, doubling from 22% of cases two weeks earlier.
“Don’t come,” the mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, told potential overseas visitors last month as the Mediterranean city grappled with a faster-spreading variant. “It’s not the time.”
As if more evidence was needed of the hard work ahead for Europe to get its house in order, it was provided by the ignominy of the EU blocking the export of 250,000 Italian-made AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia.
However, a move meant to sanction AstraZeneca for delays and shortages in EU supplies, merely underlined Europe’s own stuttering vaccine programme.
Not that the export ban seemed to bother anyone in Australia.
Aside from an “official complaint” which appeared to come almost as an afterthought, instead of anger, Australian politicians offered their sympathies.
“In Italy, people are dying at the rate of 300 a day. And so I can certainly understand the high level of anxiety that would exist in Italy and in many countries across Europe,” Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said.
“They are in an unbridled crisis situation. That is not the situation in Australia,” he added.
Offering solidarity, rather than scolding, was Australia’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly: “My sister lives in Italy. They’re at the moment having 18,000 cases a day. And around 300 deaths in Italy.”
Former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer responded with more edge, suggesting Europe should have simply asked Australia for help, rather than resorting to “vaccine nationalism”.
“It would’ve been much better than bludgeoning around with some sort of EU law where you can just terminate arrangements with other countries outside the EU. You saw the turmoil it caused in the UK,” he told BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme.
“[Italy is] in an unbridled crisis situation. That is not the situation in Australia” Scott Morrison, Australian prime minister
Australia has every reason to be smug.
The country hasn’t recorded a single death since December 28, and just two since October 28, while its own homegrown AstraZeneca vaccine is due to start rolling off Melbourne production lines before the end of the month at a rate of a million doses a week.
Its domestic production target of 50 million doses will more than adequately cover Australia’s 22 million population, so much so that health minister Greg Hunt gloated that the Italy shipment “was not factored into our distribution plan for coming weeks”.
With Australians, including the Europe-born head of AstraZeneca and dual French-Australian citizen, Pascal Soriot, long out of lockdown, enjoying sporting events, restaurants and domestic travel, many could even see the funny side.
However, the irony of Europe exercising extraordinary powers to block a shipment of vaccines that its political leaders have questioned, its authorities initially failed to authorise for over-65s, and that is now being largely shunned by its citizens, was not lost on Australia’s doctors.
“It’s certainly very disappointing to see this vaccine nationalism rearing its head,” Omar Khorshid, the head of the Australian Medical Association, said.
“It’s a little ironic that Europe didn’t seem to keen on the AstraZeneca vaccine just a few weeks ago... and then all of a sudden once the UK experience demonstrates that it’s actually a really good vaccine we see a shipment to Australia blocked,” Khorshid said.
Adding to the paradox was France, which said it could follow Italy and also block shipment of vaccines, but whose president Emmanuel Macron angered scientists just weeks ago when he called the AstraZeneca vaccine “quasi-ineffective” for people over 65.
French uptake of the AstraZeneca vaccine is among the lowest in Europe. Only 25% of the doses delivered had been used as of Sunday. By comparison, 82% of the available Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines were injected.
The issue is so acute that Macron is reportedly considering forcing caregivers, whose inoculation rates are lagging between 20-40% depending on role, to take the vaccine. And, in a further move, 400,000 AstraZeneca doses that were allocated to caregivers, will now be made available to the general public.
Herein lies Europe’s dilemma. Blocking exports of a jab they already have and can’t get people to take, just as case numbers surge and lockdowns are extended, is hampering confidence it can solve the riddle of vaccine passports.
Sensing the urgency, the already under fire von der Leyen on Friday pressed the governments of the 27 member states to immediately begin technical work to ensure the vaccination certificate system can be introduced in time for summer.
“An EU system can only work if the national systems are in place on time.” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen
The EU executive aims to present its plans for a Digital Green Pass on March 17 and to cooperate with international organisations to ensure that its system also works beyond the European Union.
“The foundation of such a common approach is trust,” von der Leyen wrote in a letter to EU governments, adding that member states had to start work immediately to ensure systems were ready in time.
As well as a legal framework, the system requires a common technical infrastructure to ensure that authorities in one member state could be sure that certificates issued by another state were reliable, she said.
The Commission is working with member states on a digital infrastructure to allow the certificates to be authenticated and this work could be completed within three months, von der Leyen wrote.
“An EU system can only work if the national systems are in place on time,” she added.
Even after the EU go-ahead at the February 25 summit, ambivalence among governments like France, Germany and Belgium could hamper vaccine passports’ deployment.
Airlines are well aware of the sensitivities and the ambitious timelines.
A government-issued pass with international backing “won’t come out quickly enough for this summer”, Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary predicted this week. Instead, Ryanair plans to enable medical certificate uploads to its customer app, in the hope authorities will accept them.
Without faster progress towards a European and international standard, more governments are likely to go their own way, and more holidaymakers could find their travel plans complicated or placed in jeopardy.
With files from Reuters
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.