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Europe watches as Denmark takes lead on Covid passports

UNFAMILIAR SIGHT: FC Midtjylland fans react as their team goes 1-0 up against FC Copenhagen last week. Covid passports means supporters can now attend matches - Credit: FrontzoneSport via Getty Images

The eyes of European leaders are on Denmark as it becomes the continent’s first country to fully embrace Covid passports

For 27-year-old Nikoline Maria Flørnæss Brandenborg her most recent visit to a Copenhagen bar was a little different from the previous one, five months earlier.

The music at Frederiksberg Ølbar was as loud as before lockdown and the beer just as expensive. But before getting the drinks in this time, Nikoline had to first show the bartender her corona passport to prove she was infection free.

The coronapas is at the centre of a grand plan to reopen Danish society. And as the first European country to fully embrace the idea of Covid passports, Denmark is the focus of a continent’s rapt attention.

The passport – in the form of an app, MinSundhed (MyHealth), or a piece of paper – shows whether people have had a negative test result within the last 72 hours, a certificate of vaccination or proof of a previous infection within the last six months.

It means that it is now possible to dine indoors at a restaurant with up to nine others, provided you reserve a table and everyone has a coronapas. Museums, zoos and even football stadiums are now opening up – for those with the all-important passport.

Digital certificates are seen as Europe’s route out of lockdown, and the EU wants to have its own scheme in place across all 27 member states by the end of June. In the UK, the government has said that proving your Covid status is “likely to become a feature of our lives” and has launched trials into the use of certification.

In Britain and elsewhere the issue is proving highly controversial, with concerns about privacy and claims that passports will be divisive and discriminatory.

In Denmark, those fears remain but the debate is less intense and the practical advantages of the passports appear to be outweighing the concerns. Nine of the 10 parties have backed the government’s plans and the Confederation of Danish Industry supports the passports.

There has been opposition. Some business owners have complained that the onus for screening customers falls on them, while a petition to block the scheme attracted 40,000 signatures and hundreds of demonstrators attended a recent protest, organised by the so-called Men in Black movement.

But a recent survey suggested 67% of Danes thought passports were a good idea, with only 16% against, and most of the Danish debate has been about practicalities rather than ethics of passports.

What this says about Danes is an issue that has been occupying the country.  A culture of samsfundssind (community spirit) is one factor put forward. Another is a greater trust in authority than other countries – although this was put to the test by a security breach in the preliminary app that enabled users to alter test dates or even manipulate positive results to appear as negative.

For Nikoline at least, the passport is a price worth paying, to get the back to the bar, amongst other things. “I find it important that my data is safe, but I trust that the people in charge and experts know what they are doing,” she said.

The scheme has thrown up some logistical difficulties, which people are having to get used to.

As Nikoline has not been able to work from home she takes a rapid antigen test twice a week so always has a less than 72-hour-old result to show on her coronapas.

However, her boyfriend, Sebastian Peters, 29, works remotely and tests himself less frequently. He took a rapid test on his way to the bar. “When I arrived, I still hadn’t received the result on my phone,” he said. “So I had to wait outside, while the others were enjoying themselves at the bar.”

Denmark’s pioneering scheme has been made possible because the country has not suffered the same crippling third wave as elsewhere in Europe. Its infection and death rates are now among the continent’s lowest.

Before Christmas, a second wave swept over the country and it went into its second lockdown, from which it is now emerging. Passports are also needed for hairdressers and tattoo parlours, but not shops, and will be required for cinemas, theatres and gyms. Those who don’t comply risk being fined.

Many Danes have described the passport as giving them a greater sense of safety. But the scheme is by no means 100% secure. As professor Lone Simonsen, head of PandemiX centre at Roskilde University has pointed out: as long as your negative test result is no older than 72 hours, you will be allowed into the bar or hairdresser, even though you could have become infectious after the test was taken. Simonsen estimates that between a third and half of the actual infected people could have the virus in spite of their passport showing a negative result.

From an epidemiologist point of view, she would have preferred a passport based solely on antibodies, meaning that only people who finished their vaccination or have had Covid-19 and evidence of antibodies, could go out and socialise.

However, less than a fourth of the Danish population has so far had their first vaccine shot. The rollout has further been slowed down by the recent decision to not use the AstraZeneca vaccine. The latest predictions are that the adult population should be vaccinated by August.

The second-best solution, after an antibody passport, is a document like the current one, also including negative results from the sensitive PCR test or the rapid antigen test, the professor reckons. “A 24-hour-limit on the PCR and antigen tests would be much safer, but I understand that you have to compromise to make it practical,” says Simonsen.

Testing has long been a cornerstone in the Danish coronavirus strategy, and the country has one of the world’s highest per capita rates. “One of the main reasons that Denmark has a stable epidemic control is that we test insanely much,” Simonsen says. “The massive test effort combined with contact tracking literally sucks infectivity out of the population.”

Hundreds of thousands of Danes are tested for the coronavirus every day, using PCR and antigen tests. The country of 5.8 million inhabitants has a capacity of 500,000 tests a day. About 250 new cases are found daily with the antigen tests alone. “That really has an effect,” Simonsen says.

Modellers have argued that although the rapid antigen tests are less sensitive than the PCR tests, the fact that they can be performed frequently on a massive part of the population with quick results, makes them a worthy tool in fighting the spread of the virus. Now Denmark is testing that theory in real life.

There have been teething problems. In the first days after the passports came into use, the volume of people using the app caused delays. But the country seems to be getting used to the idea.

The scheme marks a shift in the Danish pandemic strategy, says professor of political science at Aarhus University, Michael Bang Petersen, who is the leader of an research project ‘How Democracies Cope with Covid’. “For a long time, the Danish policy has been based on voluntary behavioural change, now a negative test result is required to get into a restaurant,” he remarked.

This shift “from voluntariness to control,” has not affected the population’s general support of the way the country’s leaders and authorities handle the corona crisis. Surveys show that about two thirds of Danes have been supportive of previous measures to hinder the spread of the virus, and a similar share supports the passport.

“This suggests that the population sees the passport as a part of a general narrative of a state that wants to protect us rather than control us,” Petersen said.

In Copenhagen, Nikoline and Sebastian hope to soon be allowed into the gym and perhaps even go to a music festival in July. Their summer plans do not involve travelling abroad, however. “We have planned to go on a cycling trip here in Denmark,” says Nikoline.

The success or otherwise of the Danish scheme may well be critical to the summer plans of an entire continent.

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