Portugal has pulled the emergency brake on the EU COVID-19 travel pass less than six months after it was introduced, requiring a negative coronavirus test for all new arrivals trying to enter the country by land, sea, or air.
The measure comes as the pandemic worsens across Europe and a new variant of concern – named Omicron – begins spreading.
Prime Minister António Costa declared a so-called “state of calamity” – one step lower than the state of emergency – and imposed fresh restrictions to stop the virus.
These include mandatory teleworking and the requirement to present a negative COVID-19 test – PCR or rapid antigen – conducted in the 48 hours prior to entering the country.
The condition will come into force on December 1 at midnight and will apply to all travellers, including Portuguese nationals and EU citizens.
The extraordinary measures will remain in place until at least January 9.
The decision caught Brussels off guard. The EU digital COVID certificate, launched earlier this summer, was designed to facilitate cross-border and exempt pass-holders from additional restrictions, such as having to quarantine on arrival.
The dispensation is the certificate’s main advantage and the reason why it was rolled out in record time at the start of the summer season.
At the same time, the regulation provides EU countries with an emergency brake that can be used when the epidemiological situation in another member state worsens rapidly.
The brake allows a government to introduce test and quarantine requirements as long as the measures are exceptional, proportional and temporary and, if possible, apply only at regional level.
Portugal has invoked the full force of EU law to pull an extreme version of the emergency brake that will subject all pass-holders from all 27 member states to testing conditions.
Such radical, far-reaching use of the special mechanism was not envisioned when the bloc brought in the digital certificate and might spell bad news for its long-term viability.
“In principle, member states should refrain from imposing additional travel restrictions on holders of the EU digital COVID certificate, in particular on holders of vaccination and recovery certificates,” said a European Commission spokesperson on Monday afternoon.
“They should inform the Commission and other member states 48 hours in advance in case they intend to introduce any new restrictions,”
The spokesperson later confirmed to Euronews that Portugal had notified the executive about its plans on Monday morning and officials were still analysing the request to determine its legality.
Will other EU countries follow suit?
Costa’s socialist government was among the most vocal proponents of the certificate, considered indispensable to boost the tourism-reliant economy after a dramatic recession in 2020.
The Commission says the scheme has been a success: over 650 million certificates have been issued this year and a total of 51 countries, such as the United Kingdom, Norway and Singapore, are connected to the system.
Although the EU pass can also be obtained with a recent negative test and a medical statement of recovery, it has been mostly linked to proof of vaccination, granting inoculated travellers the privilege to move freely and unimpeded.
Portugal’s choice is particularly remarkable: the country is one of the most vaccinated nations in the world, with over 88% of its population fully inoculated against COVID-19.
The decision was announced a day before the Omicron variant began making international headlines and sending investors into a panic.
So far, no other EU country has told Brussels it would follow in Portugal’s steps, the Commission spokesperson said.
Switzerland, a non-EU country which is connected to the certificate’s system, has already imposed quarantine for arrivals from countries where the new variant has been detected, including the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and the UK.