Some of the vaccinated are sliding into lockdown in Finland due to a technical issue

December 03, 2021

Update 22/12/21: Sense prevails, and a new law is passed ensuring that third country certificates are now accepted in all cases. This post remains as a reminder of what can go wrong when sticking to rigid technical approaches to solving such problems.

Following suit with many other EU states, the COVID-19 passport now has wider use in Finland. The most recent move is that all organized events in the capital area with more than 20 participants must now require the COVID-19 passport as a condition of entry (finnish link).

On a public policy level, this more or less makes sense. We know that people can be ”unsymptomatic carriers” of COVID-19 and we know that you’re likely to build up higher viral loads if you’re unvaccinated. We also know that socialization increases your risk of contracting COVID-19 and contracting COVID-19 increases your risk of ending up in scarce ICU space. So if you don’t protect yourself and others with the vaccine, everyone else probably has a mandate to mitigate against those harms.

However, would it surprise you to know that there are many vaccinated individuals who are also being targeted by this policy?

The reason for this is because they were vaccinated outside of the EU.

Strictly speaking, the law mandating the use of the COVID-19 passport requires that venues subject to the rules only accept a certificate be one issued under the relevant EU standard for COVID-19 certificates (or by a partner country with a decision about equivalence). Certificates issued by non-partner states are invalid. And the cities of Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa have all stated that they will not issue equivalent EU certificates for those outside that list, the official reason being due to ”[lack of] technical means”, the unofficial reason being due to a fear of liability on the part of healthcare providers to issue a “strong” certificate in exchange for a document which they don’t have any guidelines for validating themselves.

The ticking timeline where these certificates become more and more mandatory combined with a rigid technical system have predictably resulted in cases people living in the country, many third country nationals, but in some cases even nationals (in finnish) are finding themselves locked out of society. This is also something that particularly affects international students (in finnish), many of whom were vaccinated prior to arriving this year and are now in some cases being told by other student societies that they are unable to participate in student events because they have papers from the “wrong place”.

The “unofficial solution” to the problem is to “just get vaccinated again”. But this isn’t always possible. If one discloses to their healthcare provider that they have already been double-vaccinated and less than six months have passed since their last dose, they may be denied a third vaccination on health grounds. On the side of establishments and event organizers, there some that aware are of these shortcomings in the law and comply with the “spirit” of the law but not the letter, by inspecting foreign certificates of vaccination themselves, even though this may be in breach of data privacy rules. Some have also discussed abusing loopholes in the certification system and obtaining an EU-compatible certifiate by converting one’s own certificate in a country that issues EU-compatiable certificates and permits such conversion. But this hardly seems like a satisfactory outcome.

Of course, those in charge are now starting to notice (in finnish) the insanity around this situation, especially since vaccination is a condition of entry to Finland when coming from non “green-list” countries. The national government has proposed to pass a law effective from the start of next year which will force the capital area muncipalities to, for a lack of a better term, get with the programme (in finnish). That still leaves all of December where people in this situation are having their personal freedoms rather unjustifiably taken away, nor does it address the situation of those who have been vaccinated with “unapproved” vaccines (for example, Sputnik-V) now find themselves in.

How did we get here?

One thing that I have noticed throughout this pandemic is the over-use of and over-rigidity of technical solutions to things that are arguably problems that can be solved with a little bit of common sense. It is probably the case that such digital certificates came about in order to prevent forgery of documents (though there are plenty of forged EU digital certificates floating around, so its not like the EU scheme entirely solves the issue, even if it does make obtaining a forged certificate more difficult). But in this case, the cost of false negatives (missing unvaccinated people) and false positives (excluding vaccinated people) is high. So any system design needs to take that into account. Probably particular consideration can be paid to the notion that in many countries, the proportion of willingly unvaccinated is small and growing smaller and the proportion of those willing to go out of their way to forge documents, lie to medical professionals and do so convincingly is even smaller. It seems as though such considerations were not made this time around, and hopefully it provides something for policymakers to learn from for the future.

Profile picture

Written by Sam Spilsbury an Australian PhD student living in Helsinki.