by Nando Sigona (@nandosigona)
If 18 months of pandemic were not enough to push society to the verge of a nerve breakdown, then came the vaccine passports in all their shapes and forms to make lives even more miserable. And Brexit is adding its fair bit to the mix. This is especially the case if you are one of the millions of British nationals with EU family connections or an EU citizen who has made the UK their home and is trying to visit, or be visited by, family and friends over the summer.
The UK government is uncertain of what to do with its traffic light system, and with colour changing quicker than the time it takes to book a short holiday, fly in and enjoy the sun and return to the UK, the public has come to realise that ‘green light’ is meaningless if the country where you want to go doesn’t open the door to you. Imagine a road with a traffic light, and on the other side of the light there is a wall or a cliff. The freedom-loving UK feels now more than ever like a desert island, some sort of dystopian nation-wide Truman Show where everything looks perfect as long as you don’t try to leave. The largest number of CCTV cameras per capita in Europe and the infatuation for facial recognition technologies and digital borders add to the bleak Truman picture.
Arguably, stubborn and ideologically-driven resistance by the UK government to any suggestion to align itself or even engage in a spirit of cooperation with its closest and far larger neighbour – the EU – in its response to the pandemic has made that wall taller (or cliff deeper) and declaring a “freedom day” in the middle of a rampant third wave of Covid infections hasn’t made things any easier with our EU neighbours. In the last few days, incredulity and utter disbelief from EU policy makers are quickly been followed by emergency measures restricting access to UK residents (irrespective of where they were born).
Not persuaded by the allure of staycation and keen to reconnect with loved ones on the continent, many UK residents had hoped that the summer coming and the vaccination programme being so successful, as the UK government never fail to remind us, travels to Europe would be facilitated by the high rate of vaccinations on both sides of the English Channel (by the way, several EU member states have now almost caught up with the UK in terms of the percentage of adult population fully vaccinated), but again Brexit-driven posturing and gesturing is tearing millions of families apart, driving a wedge between the UK and the rest of Europe with people with roots or close connections in the EU caught in the middle, treated somehow as an inconvenient demographic remnant of a long-gone geopolitical era, refusing to align with the new reality of the insular Global Britain.
In the meantime, in the EU, the same old story of tensions between national and EU levels repeats itself in how to reopen to EU and international visitors with safety. The EU Green Pass provides the overall framework but individual member states are free to interpret it in their own way. And this includes the question of what to do with UK visitors. While some EU member states have been open to fully-vaccinated UK residents waiving quarantine and testing requirements, others have not, with U-turns being so frequent that different government departments’ websites struggle to stay updates with their own government guidelines.
Brexit also surfaces in another way, with UK visitors experiencing the negative side effects of measures targeted at other people. It happens, for example, that in considering measures to promote vaccine take up among a specific group of the population, the impacts on others who have no access (for a range of reasons) to Green Pass are not fully thought through or are discounted as irrelevant. Here I am considering the position of UK visitors – whose NHS ‘Vaccine passport’ is not recognised by some EU member states – but there are many other individuals affected, including people who are unable to vaccinate for health reasons or because of their age. This is the case of Italy where currently, inspired by the measures implemented by France, the Italian government is considering making the EU Green Pass a requirement for accessing a wide array of services and places, including nightclubs, restaurants, shops, hotels and bars from August. As things stand at the moment, this would make life for visitors from the UK close to impossible in Italy. Italy, differently from France, doesn’t recognise the NHS Covid certificate and the vaccinations done in the UK even with EMA approved vaccines. This means that if the extended use of the Green Pass were to be implemented, while entering Italy would still be possible – subject to 5 days of isolation and a negative PCR or antigen test at the end – what happen next is a question mark. Currently, following a negative test after isolation, Italy grants a Green Pass, however this has validity only for 48 hours. In practice, it would mean that UK visitors in order to access their hotel, campsites, restaurants or gelaterias, would need to take a PCR or antigen test every two days for the duration of their stay, at huge costs financially and mentally.
The Italian coalition government is divided, the Right parties led by Salvini and Meloni are opposing the extensive use of the Green Pass. Of course, it is not the concerns of the UK visitors that they have in mind, but they are doing it as a gesture to their antivaxxer supporters. This leave us in an unpalatable position, torn between the principle that everyone should be able to access services and venues in safety and hoping that Salvini and co are successful in limiting the use of the Green Pass so that we are be able to get some food from the supermarket or go to a pizzeria with our family while in Italy.