Greece is in “technical” talks with the UK over allowing Britons carrying a vaccine passport to travel to its tourist hotspots from May despite concerns in Brussels and other EU capitals.
Haris Theoharis, the country’s tourism minister, said he hoped to “dovetail” with Boris Johnson’s roadmap for allowing Britons to travel but refused to be drawn on whether Greece would break with Brussels to establish the scheme.
Non-essential travel into the EU is currently largely prohibited. All the leaders of the EU’s 27-member states will say on Thursday that “for the time being” the restrictions need to remain, according to a draft statement.
But Theoharis confirmed that Anglo-Greek technical teams were working on how a certificate system could facilitate the resumption of mass travel and what format it would take.
“We’ll try to dovetail with the plan that has been announced in the UK,” Theoharis told the Guardian. “A date of 17 May has been set and we certainly want to be ready by then. The roadmap was a very, very good move by the UK government … planning is a pre-requisite for the travel industry.”
The EU’s heads of state and government are set to discuss the roll-out of a common vaccination certificate during their meeting on Thursday but officials have described plans to use such documents as a device to facilitate travel as “premature”.
Borders remain a national competence with officials appearing relaxed about the talks with the UK. But few in Brussels believe Greece or other member states will go their own way on tourism despite the economic costs of remaining closed.
“If there are discussions with the UK government that is fine,” one senior EU diplomat said. “[But] I don’t see any prospect of anyone going it alone.”
Theoharis said his government would instead push for swifter agreement on vaccine passports at the EU level given the desperate need within countries dependent on tourism to be open to visitors.
The idea has been resisted by some, including in France and Germany, due to the lack of evidence that vaccination prevents transmission and the discrimination that such passports might institutionalise.
“All we are saying is that with this system we’d be instituting two lanes in airports as it were,” Theoharis said. “The vaccination lane and the non-vaccination lane which would facilitate travel quite a bit.
“We have to move fast. It’s already been decided that this certificate will be created on a Pan-European basis even if it is just for health reasons.”
Like most countries in southern Europe Greece is hugely reliant on tourism with the sector accounting for over 20% of the Mediterranean destination’s national output.
One in five jobs depend on the sector. Less than a third of the 33.1 million tourists the nation attracted in 2019 visited last year on account of the pandemic.
“What we’ll be bringing to the table is [our conviction] that the certificate is a prerequisite if we are to start travelling with some kind of confidence,” Theoharis said. “We want to finish what we started and finish it quickly and briskly and at the same time aim high for the travel and tourism industry.
“There are a number of misconceptions around the certificate, the first being that it would be discriminatory. It’s not, because it’s just an alternative to negative testing.
“The idea that it breaches privacy laws is also wrong because, if you prefer, you can travel as if you are not vaccinated and always get tested. A certificate simply allows somebody to travel without needing to test all the time. In that sense it’s hassle- free and cost-efficient.
“And on the health front there is greater probability a vaccinated person has fewer chances of spreading the disease than someone who is negative at some point in time.”