Malta was among just four out of the 27 EU states to use the EU-developed passenger locator digital form during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a European Court of Auditors report.

The passenger locator forms were only used by Italy, Malta, Slovenia and France and this was because, by the time they were launched in May 2021, some countries had already developed their own solutions and others were concerned about data protection matters.

The limited use meant that the forms did not have the intended impact, according to an ECA report that looked into the efficiency of four IT tools developed by the European Commission to facilitate safe travel during the coronavirus pandemic.

Use of EU tools in member states. SOURCE: ECAUse of EU tools in member states. SOURCE: ECA

Only one tool – the COVID Digital Certificate – was used by all member states and was effective in facilitating travel during the pandemic. The impact of other EU tools, however, was modest, the report found.

Following the detection of the first COVID-19 cases in the EU in March 2020, member states started to impose travel bans and other restrictions on the free movement of citizens. To facilitate travel and to help trace COVID-19 cases, the EU Commission developed four IT tools that cost €71 million.

European federation gateway service

Just 20% of Malta’s population downloaded a contact-tracing app that could be used as part of the European Federation Gateway Service -  a gateway ensuring EU-wide interoperability between national contact-tracing apps.

Number of contact-tracing app downloads. SOURCE: ECANumber of contact-tracing app downloads. SOURCE: ECA

The contact-tracing gateway started functioning in October 2020 - seven months after the pandemic began. It was used by 18 member states from the 27-bloc, including Malta.

Only in two member states - Finland and Ireland - did more than 50% of the population download the app. 

Passenger locator form and exchange platform

This tool aimed to replace paper forms used to collect contact-tracing information during travel and came together with a platform for exchanging passenger locator forms.

The forms were launched in May 2021. The report found that passenger locator forms were developed too late, since some national solutions had already been made available earlier.

The passenger locator form was used by four member states, while 17 other countries continued to rely on national solutions. Out of almost 27 million forms issued by February 2022, 91.6% (24.7 million) were Italian.

Similarly, the use of the exchange platform was very limited. While, in theory, the tool could be used to exchange information from any national platform, it was mostly adopted by those countries that were also using the EU forms.

The overall use of the platform remained insignificant, with only three forms exchanged in 2021 and 253 in the first two months of 2022. All but one of those were from Spain.

Digital COVID certificate 

This was a certificate confirming vaccination against COVID-19, recovery or a negative test. It was launched in June 2021, before EU countries had finished their vaccination plans.

EU digital COVID certificates generated. Source: ECAEU digital COVID certificates generated. Source: ECA

The online gateway for the EU digital certificate went live on June 1, 2021, with seven member states connected. Within one-and-a-half months, all 27 EU states were connected, as well as 45 non-EU countries.

Member states issued 585 million certificates by October 13, 2021. Five months later, 1.7 billion certificates had been issued, most of them (1.1 billion) based on vaccination. (This number is higher than the EU population because one person could have multiple certificates). 

Future recommendations 

In its recommendations, the European Court of Auditors noted that the European Commission should address the reasons behind the low use of the EU digital passenger locator form and exchange platform and promote increased uptake of these tools by member states during future phases of the pandemic.

Finally, the audit flags the lack of specific procedures for the use of these tools in the longer term, or for re-activating them quickly in the event that they are needed again. For instance, the current legal basis for the EU digital COVID certificate expires in June.

Read the full report here:

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