EU to Lay Out Plan for Lifting Lockdowns Amid Astra Setback

The European Union will start plotting its strategy to gradually lift coronavirus lockdowns, even as an AstraZeneca Plc vaccine health scare risks causing additional delays to the bloc’s botched immunization campaign.

“There is reason to look forward to a substantial reduction in the prevalence of the virus, raising the prospect of a lifting of the restrictions weighing on citizens and the economy alike,” the European Commission will say in a policy document due to be unveiled Wednesday. “EU citizens have good reason to expect the situation to improve,” it will say, according to a draft seen by Bloomberg.

The coordinated lifting of lockdowns will be based on a tier “system reflecting the epidemiological situation in each member state,” the Commission will say. The document’s publication is coming as a surge in contagion across the continent is forcing governments to prolong or reimpose restrictions.

The tier system, due to be proposed by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, will simulate how much latitude each government has to lighten the measures “without risking a reversal in the spread of the virus.” The ECDC will aim to launch the system next month, the draft says.

The EU wants to vaccinate the bulk of its adult population against the virus by the end of summer, paving the way for a return to a semblance of normalcy after the once-in-a-century pandemic killed more than 550,000 people in the bloc and led its economy to the steepest recession on record.

London-based research firm Airfinity Ltd. said the suspended rollout of Astra’s Covid-19 vaccine in some EU countries over concerns about possible side effects could delay the goal of immunizing three-quarters of populations by as much as a month. Still, the draft confirms the bloc is expecting 300 million doses to be distributed to members in the second quarter, which may help accelerate the bloc’s sluggish inoculation programs.

Vaccination Pass

The Commission will say on Wednesday that inoculations are just one piece of the reopening puzzle. On Wednesday, the EU’s executive arm will also publish a legislative proposal for a digital pass certifying that holders have been vaccinated, tested negative or recovered from the virus.

The latest draft of the “Digital Green Certificate” regulation allows for vaccines authorized by national governments but not by the European Medicines Agency to be included in the certificate. The document suggests that it will be up to each individual member state to decide whether those inoculated with such shots are considered immune and therefore safe to travel, according to a person familiar with the proposals.

Hungary has already started administering vaccines manufactured in Russia and China, which have yet to receive approval by the EU’s drugs regulator. The decision to include shots in the certificate that haven’t received pan-European authorization could help ease travel from outside the bloc, helping tourism-dependent economies attract more visitors. The pass will also include a mechanism to provide for vaccines administered in non-EU countries.

Preparations should start “on a common approach to the gradual lifting of restrictions, to ensure that efforts are coordinated when the epidemiological situation allows for an easing of current measures,” EU leaders will say in a joint communique next week. Work on inter-operable vaccine “certificates should be taken forward as a matter of priority,” leaders will say according to a draft of their statement seen by Bloomberg.

The introduction of such passes is intended to ease travel for those not considered to be carrying the virus. The EU hopes member states will approve the proposal swiftly so the certificates are in place by mid-June. Vaccination certificates may also allow the lifting of the almost blanket ban currently in place for incoming travel from outside the EU.

“Tourism and other travel from outside the EU are an important feature of the EU’s openness,” the Commission will say, promising to “facilitate adaptation of restrictions where travelers from third countries,” are “in a position to present certificates under a system deemed sufficiently reliable.”

Investors are also pricing in a resumption of travel. Europe’s Stoxx 600 Travel & Leisure Index fully erased its pandemic losses and closed at a record on Monday. While airlines in the gauge remain a long way from levels reached in February 2020, they’ve been rebounding since November on positive vaccine expectations and as countries such as the U.K. map out a path to ease lockdowns.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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