“some want reciprocity”

The return of safe travel?

How vaccine passports from the EU and Japan differ


AUGUST 2021 Feature / Text by Gavin Blair

As the global coronavirus vaccination rollout continues, the issue of ensuring safe cross-border travel is garnering more attention. A key factor will be internationally accepted vaccine passports that prove travellers have been fully inoculated or are not infectious.

On 1 July, the EU Digital Covid Certificate (EU DCC) came into operation for all 27 member states plus Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, and Liechtenstein. It requires applicants to show they are vaccinated, recently had a negative PCR test result, or recently recovered from the virus. The certificate is available at no cost in digital and paper form, and it includes a QR code containing validating information.

An important feature of the passport is that it links the national vaccine certificates of European countries and contains information that can be decoded at border crossings between EU member states. From a privacy standpoint, the digital signature in the QR code can be verified but the vaccine passport doesn’t disclose any other health information, and such data won’t be transferred from the country that issued the passport.

When a member state imposes travel restrictions on another member state due to rising infections, the passport will help ensure that people comply with requirements for PCR tests and quarantines.

Passports will not be mandatory, and those without them can still travel if they undergo testing.

Japan launched its passport on 26 July — in paper form only and with no QR codes. They are available at no charge from municipalities. Aside from the lack of a digital version, criticism has also been levelled at the fact that the Japanese authorities are asking countries to recognise its passport, but are not offering vaccine passport-holders of other nations the same exemptions from quarantine and other restrictions in return. Despite this, as of mid-August, 14 countries and regions had agreed to recognise the Japanese certificate, including Germany, Italy, Austria, Poland, and Hong Kong.

“The Japanese approach at the moment is a bit piecemeal: going to each member state. Some say yes, some want reciprocity,” an EU official told Eurobiz Japan. “The best solution would be an equivalence decision, with the EU recognising a Japanese digital certificate — once they are developed — and Japan recognising the EU DCC in return.”

Some are voicing concern over the implementation of vaccine certificates. There is particular opposition to the requirement that they be used for everyday activities — such as going to the gym or entering a café — a practice that has been introduced in some countries and is being considered by more. But requiring the EU DCC for international travel was widely supported by member states, where most see it as one of the keys to economic recovery.

In the UK, plans to require passports to allow people into entertainment venues have been widely criticised. There may be enough MPs of the ruling Conservatives who are prepared to join opposition parties to defeat the government’s proposal when parliament reconvenes at the beginning of September.

The Japanese government has not yet made any official announcement about such a scheme, but appears to be considering one.   

“In France, for example, vaccine passports are required to go to restaurants or other public places. Japan is waiting to see how that works in other countries before deciding on whether to introduce a similar system,” says Dr Kazuhiro Tateda, a professor at Toho University’s Department of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases and a member of expert panels advising the Japanese government on the pandemic.

For now, the focus remains on cross-border travel and how countries will respond to the continually changing circumstances of the pandemic and the spread of coronavirus variants, which are causing infection numbers to rise in many countries.

Industrial equipment supplier and installer K.K. Irisu has faced disruption due to restrictions on foreigners entering Japan, though some of its employees have recently been able to travel to and from Europe and between Japan and China.

“The bilingual Japanese vaccine passports have worked for our [Japan-based] staff, but Japan is still insisting on quarantine for travellers from overseas, which is usually not practical for short business trips,” says Hartmut Pannen, vice president of K.K. Irisu.

The company has been able to get visas for engineers from Europe to service or install machines if the work is designated as essential to the Japanese economy, explains Pannen, who says this favours the larger corporations among its customers.

“During the pandemic, everybody has become used to working remotely using online technology, which has been very helpful. So, there will be fewer business trips in the future,” he adds. “But for the remaining 50% of the time, there will still be a need for personal visits or engineers working hands-on.”

Pannen believes that hosting the Olympics effectively “cornered” the government and hopes that now the Games are over, attitudes will change and reciprocity with the EU’s vaccine passport will be granted.

The analogue nature of Japan’s certificates remains a stumbling block, but a resolution may be at hand.

“The EU has started discussions on a technical level with Japan, so there may be a decision on equivalence, perhaps by year-end, which is the timeframe the Japanese side has indicated is realistic,” says the EU official. “Once a Japanese digital certificate has been developed, it could be recognised in Europe and the EU DCC could be recognised in Japan.”

Toho University’s Tateda postulates that one factor in the decision to make the passports paper-only was the assumption that the number of people in Japan who needed to travel abroad and who were fully vaccinated when the passports were introduced was probably low. He calls it “the minimum action the government could take”.

Tateda confirms that discussions are ongoing regarding the creation of digital certificates for overseas travel, but predicts that their introduction is “likely to happen around the end of October or in November”.

The current lack of reciprocity between Japan and other countries over vaccine passports is not ideal, acknowledges Tateda, who believes that mutual recognition “would be fair”.