Portugal to start issuing digital Covid-19 certificates from this week

Portugal is to start issuing digital Covid-19 certificates from this week (see details below).

The official signing of regulations covering these documents – also dubbed ‘Covid passports’ – has been hailed by prime minister António Costa as “a great step towards a safe recovery” for the bloc in general, and for the Portuguese economy in particular.

“Now we have the opportunity to travel in freedom and security”, he said at a ceremony today held in the European parliament in the presence of its president David Sassoli and president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. 

Mr Costa stressed these certificates will in no way substitute sanitary rules already in place (ie the wearing of masks, frequent hand sanitisation and physical distancing) “because we need to continue to fight this pandemic”.

Officially, the requirement for people to carry Digital Certificates when travelling won’t come into effect before July 1. Thus there is a two-week period now for anyone planning a trip to request one.

The certificate will not require the holder to have been vaccinated. It will prove one (possibly two) of three situations: a vaccination, a negative test and/ or previous infection with SARS-CoV-2.

Explain reports, “it is a document that will facilitate the free circulation of EU citizens in a safe way during the Covid-19 pandemic”.

The European Parliament approved the adoption of the Digital Certificate last week on the understanding that it will remain in force for the next 12 months.

At no point was it made clear how people travelling on negative tests would ‘update’ the document, but that will no doubt become clear over time.

The idea is that the certificate will be in either digital or paper format, with a QR code that can be ‘easily read by electronic devices’.

The document will be issued ‘free of charge’. It will come in the holder’s own language and in English. It will be accepted by ‘all countries of the EU’.

In Portugal, the first certificates should be issued by the middle of this week, reports Lusa, via the ‘Serviços Partilhados do Ministério de Saúde’ (shared services of the health ministry).

The digital version can be ‘stored’ on a mobile device (phone/ tablet).

Bearing in mind travel throughout the bloc is already dependent on negative tests, how will this document ‘make a difference’? Lusa explains: “It will help guarantee that restrictions currently in place are lifted in a coordinated fashion”.

“On travelling, holders of the Digital Certificate are in principle exempt from restrictions on free circulation. Member States should not impose additional restrictions on holders unless they are proportionate and necessary to protect public health”.

If this happens – in the case, for example of “responding to new variants that are causing concern – the Member State should notify the Commission and all other Member States and justify its decision”.

In other words, the Digital Certificate is another layer of bureaucracy. In reality very little seems to have ‘changed’. Travel is still dependent on either vaccinations/ negative tests or proof of having had and recovered from the virus (this last option being perhaps not so easy to prove).

The creation however of a QR code (to store all this information) is key, as it is designed to  stop ‘forgeries’ – more than a few of which have been flagged since the start of the pandemic.

“When the certificate is inspected, the QR code is digitised and the signature verified. Each issuing entity (for example hospital, testing centre or health authority) will have their own digital signature key – and all these keys are registered on a database in each country”, explains Lusa – adding that the European Commission is “helping Member States develop software and national applications for the emission, storage and verification of certificates”.

For the time being, only EU-authorised vaccines are ‘accepted’ for these Digital Certificates, but this too may change over time.