Europe COVID-19 Omicron travel restrictions: I'm locked down for Christmas

Dreaming of a white Christmas? Not this year, says Shaney Hudson from lockdown in The Netherlands.

I dreamt of a white Christmas in Europe: evergreen Christmas trees with soft twinkling lights. Gluhwein by the fire. I know a place in Rome where they roast chestnuts on an open fire, and a spot in Switzerland where the sleigh bells jingle in the snow.

With borders open, I had a plan: escape Australia, reunite with family, squeeze in a quick dash to see a friend at the German Christmas market, hop over to Vienna for work, take a leisurely day train through the mountains down to Venice, and then pop back to my in-laws place for Christmas.

However with a fourth COVID wave sweeping Europe, those plans began to contract. Austria went into lockdown. The Christmas markets closed. A new COVID variant of concern emerged.

And now, two weeks into our five week trip, The Netherlands, where my family is based, has gone into a hard lockdown.

However, before that, I found out just how hard it will be for Australian travellers to return to Europe - and just how hard it is for outsiders to navigate pandemic protocols outside their home country.

The reason? I simply can't prove I'm vaccinated.

Here in Holland, to eat out anywhere or gain entry to museums or events, I have two options: get a negative COVID test, or use the government app, which is compatible with the EU Digital COVID Certificate system.

The EU Digital COVID Certificate is a handy little system that allows you to prove you're vaccinated, with each EU member state responsible for issuing its own certificates.

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There are 28 non-EU countries and territories affiliated, with COVID certificates issued by those countries accepted in the EU, and the EU Digital COVID Certificate accepted by those countries in return. Given its practical value for their citizens, New Zealand and Singapore are among the countries that have joined up.

But Australia has not. It might be hard to believe, but Australia has not bothered to make any effort to make its International Vaccination Certificate compatible with the EU Digital COVID Certificate.

Each member state of the EU makes its own rules about how you can access a compatible app, but the Netherlands, where I am, is very unclear. Phone calls to the number listed on the Government.nl website were answered by an automated message in Dutch that said they were "too busy answering calls, to answer calls," and I was then disconnected.

So I emailed the Australian Embassy in The Hague to ask how I could get the necessary QR code check in.

Their reply was prompt, if formulaic: "Non-residents of the Netherlands cannot currently obtain a valid QR-code on the basis of their vaccination. Instead, you can obtain a valid QR-code by getting tested for COVID-19."

Now, The Netherlands' lack of interest in certifying anyone beyond their citizens doesn't surprise me (I mean, Australia still has closed borders to Dutch citizens, so I'm hardly entitled to complain if I can't order a coffee at a cafe).

But other countries have different policies: at first I blanched when I heard about the mechanism Switzerland created for tourists, where incoming arrivals pay a fee of CHF30 ($A45) for a pass valid for 30 days. Now I find myself in Holland with nowhere to go, I'd happily pay if there was some way to magically fix my QR problem.

It's been suggested I simply source a code from the black market, but I'm not keen to commit fraud, nor support those who enable anti-vaxxers.

So if we want to do anything or go anywhere, we need to be tested-daily. But with no BSN (the Dutch tax file number equivalent) and no fixed address, the people at the local COVID testing centre don't know what to do with us.

My test results come through via phone after 30 hours, but before discovering I'd tested negative, the person on the phone played 20 questions:

"Why did you get a test?"

"Um… because the government travel advice is to do so."

"Oh. Ok. But why don't you have a Dutch mobile phone number, or a BSN?

"Because I live overseas."

"Oh. Do you have a local doctor here in The Netherlands?".

"I'm a tourist, visiting family."

My husband's results take 56 hours and the same conversation is repeated. However, we receive no confirmation via email that we are negative, and thus have no proof.

We decide to wing it. We gain entry to our favourite local theme park with just our passports and vaccination certificate, but are turned away from a local Railway museum by officious staff. The local zoo lets us in. At a beachside cafe staff are unsure, but let us stay.

Ethical considerations come into play - is it fair to get small businesses to take the risk of us being there? On the flip side: we are vaccinated and boosted- we just have no system to be able to prove it to anyone.

And then it doesn't matter anyway. With hospitals at capacity, The Netherlands goes into hard lockdown. Everything is shut down until January 18.

I'm not surprised, but it is frustrating. Christmas in Europe was always going to be different this year. For us it was not about ticking the box on destinations, or visiting the best galleries, attractions and restaurants; it was about reuniting with family. We'll drink wine, eat too much food, watch bad Christmas movies, and if it gets cold enough, ice skate on the canals. We'll be fine.

But my experience shows that tourism from outside the EU, from places like Australia - and the accurate and timely COVID testing of tourists - is far from the central concern for the Netherlands right now. It's simply too hard to navigate a system not built to cater for "others".

Sadly with COVID thriving again, this isn't the year for visiting Europe for fun. This isn't Europe at its best. Maybe next Christmas will be easier.

See also: Borders open, but travelling interstate is like trying to enter a foreign country

See also: Europe is becoming a mess for travellers

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