Israel, EU agree to recognize each other’s COVID-19 vaccine certificates

Written by on September 15, 2021

Travelers will have an easier time entering and leaving the country now that Israel has joined the European Union’s digital COVID certificate program, the Health and Foreign ministries said Wednesday.

The program is supposed to take effect in early October, according to a joint statement.

This coronavirus travel program will enable vaccinated and recovered Israelis to travel to EU member states and other countries that are members of the program and have their certificate recognized by their country of destination. At the same time, travelers from member countries will also have their vaccination and recovery certificates recognized in Israel. 

The program will also apply to people who have received coronavirus recovery certificates. The Health Ministry has not yet decided if it will allow people with testing certificates to participate. 

The program also allows Israelis to have access to the EU’s green pass, which gives entry to restaurants, cultural centers, public institutions and the like in accordance with the coronavirus guidelines in each country.

It will also prepare the ground for the opening of the Israeli tourism sector to European visitors. 

“The ability to travel and visit the world is a basis for ensuring ties between peoples and countries,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said. 

“This is a big step in our effort to make it easier for the public to allow a routine of life alongside the coronavirus,” added Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz. “Europe recognizes Israel’s vaccination certificate and we recognize the vaccination certificates from European countries. This will allow significant relief for aviation, tourism and economic relations.”

The EU began using the program among member states on July 1, 2021. It has since expanded to neighboring countries; by the time Israel officially launches its membership, there should be between 35 and 40 participating states. 

Some of the other countries involved in the program are Morocco and Turkey.

This is how it works: The Health Ministry has its own digital signature key, which is stored in a secure database in the country. At the same time, all vaccinated Israelis have a personal but public key that was assigned at the time of vaccination. This personal key can be verified through scanning a secure QR code that can be placed on a digital or physical certificate. 

The code contains only necessary key information such as name, date of birth, date of vaccine issuance and any other relevant information about the vaccine. It also contains a unique identifier. 

When the code is scanned, such as by a border official, the data is not shared and it does not get captured, transferred or stored in any way by the person or country that is doing the scanning. Rather, it remains on the certificate. However, the scanner can confirm the validity and authenticity of the certificate and who issued and signed it. 

This works because the European Commission built a “gateway” through which all certificate signatures can be verified by any country that joins the program. Israel had been working on a similar concept and therefore slightly modified its own design to meet the common design standards of the European Commission.

As early as December 2020, the Health Ministry examined the possibility of a standardized vaccine passport or certificate program that could be used by all international travelers who met the medical criteria. The World Health Organization was opposed to such certificates, largely because the organization believed that “the use of immunity certificates for international travel in the context of COVID-19 is not currently supported by scientific evidence.”

However, since then, much research has been done about the impact of vaccination on getting and spreading disease, and it is understood that the vaccines, although not foolproof, prevent the spread of disease. 

In a December report on the subject, the WHO also cited “ethical, legal and human rights aspects related to privacy of personal data and medical confidentiality; the potential for falsification or engagement in risky behavior based on a false sense of security; stigma; and discrimination” as reasons to reconsider certificates. 

Vials with Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine labels are seen in this illustration picture taken March 19, 2021.  (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION/FILE PHOTO)Vials with Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine labels are seen in this illustration picture taken March 19, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION/FILE PHOTO)

The EU digital COVID certificate program largely addresses most of these issues, and joining the EU program would alleviate the need for Israel to create its own international travel program.

Israel had been in dialogue about forming bilateral agreements with countries over the past year until multilateral agreements, such as this one, could be in place. The country also shared best practices and consulted with other countries about how best to run a certificate program. 

A Health Ministry spokesperson said the move represents “groundbreaking progress” and is a “really significant step forward.” 

It should be stressed, however, that the program does not alleviate following the COVID rules of any destination country. 

For example, foreigners wishing to enter Israel will still have to apply and meet the country’s criteria. Travelers will still need to take a PCR test within 72 hours of boarding their airplane and upon landing. 

However, they would no longer need to verify their vaccination or recovery by showing they have antibodies through a serological test. 

“This is how we will work in all areas of life,” Horowitz said, “a decisive fight against the virus and a great effort toward vaccination, while keeping the economy open.”

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