Vaccine passports: Where and how could they be used in Canada?

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TORONTO — As COVID-19 vaccine rollouts continue and the numbers of those fully vaccinated increase, some regions in Canada and internationally are already starting to use or consider vaccine-based identification for certain services or to facilitate travel.

In Canada, Manitoba has begun issuing proof-of-immunization cards to those who are fully vaccinated in the province, which allows residents to skip quarantine requirements if returning from travel and gives them greater ability to visit loved ones in hospital and long-term care.

The demand has been so overwhelming that the government recently announced it would be pausing production of physical cards to catch up, although individuals can continue to register for digital and physical cards, with digital cards available for use immediately after an individual has been approved.

Meanwhile, Quebec has said that it will adopt some sort of vaccine passport system in the fall if the province is hit by a fourth wave of COVID-19. This would not occur until after Sept 1, the point at which eligible Quebecers will have had a chance to receive two doses of the vaccine. If a vaccine passport is used in the province, it would not be used to access public or essential services, but to limit access to activities such as going to gyms, concerts, bars, team sports, festivals or other activities deemed moderate to high risk.

On its website the Quebec government specifies that employers will not be able to make a vaccine passport a requirement for hiring employees.

Saskatchewan will not require proof of vaccination for access to events and venues, Premier Scott Moe announced at the end of June.

Alberta has said no to the concept as well. Premier Jason Kenney stated Monday at the Calgary Stampede that the province would not “facilitate or accept vaccine passports.”

In Ontario, no official plans have been announced, but the Toronto Region Board of Trade has called on the Ontario government to introduce a vaccine passport for non-essential business activities.

The federal government is working on some type of vaccine passport for international travel, but how this would work is not yet certain. In May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that any policy would hopefully align with international allies.

Currently, those who are eligible to enter Canada can skip their quarantine, hotel stopover and testing requirement if they show proof of having received two doses of one of the vaccines approved in Canada, with the second dose having been administered at least 14 days before they arrived. In order to take advantage of this, travellers must upload proof of their vaccination to the app ArriveCAN at least 72 hours before they travel, and show the receipt to Canada border services upon arrival.

Vaccine passports have been a contentious topic.

From a public health standpoint, it might make sense to only allow those who have been fully vaccinated to attend things such as sporting events, or travel more widely, and it could be a good incentive for people to get their vaccines. But the concept of vaccine passports brings a whole host of privacy concerns regarding personal health information, as well as questions around the ethics of requiring vaccine confirmation for certain privileges.

Bioethicist Kerry Bowman, who is also an assistant professor at the University of Toronto, told CTV News Channel that the demand for proof-of-immunization cards in Manitoba may be a sign of fear on the part of the population, “that if they don’t have this, that they’re going to have really very restricted lives.

“There’s this anxiety that everyone’s going to need one. And I’m not sure we’re going to need any,” he added. “The last thing we need in this challenging, difficult world we live in is one more thing to divide people.”

Many Canadians are in favour of vaccine passports according to polls, with an Angus Reid Institute survey in May showing that 79 per cent of Canadians approved of a vaccine passport for international travel. However, in the same survey, only 55 per cent were in favour of showing proof of vaccination to access services like movies and restaurants.

Bowman believes we’re not at a stage where vaccine passports are necessary for the protection of the community.

“I think things have to be proportional,” he said. “I would argue it’s justified if we have a fourth wave that is profoundly serious and a tremendous threat to all of us. I truly hope that doesn’t happen.”

Just what is meant by “vaccine passport” isn’t always clear. Some digital or physical cards showing proof of vaccination that are in use across the globe are specifically for travel between countries, while others, like the ones planned for Quebec, have been for events and accessing specific spaces within a region.

In the state of New York, something called an Excelsior Pass allows participating businesses to scan an individual’s digital pass in order to see proof of vaccination.

Numerous states in the U.S. have actively banned the idea of requiring proof of vaccination to access specific services and events.

Across the pond, the European Union has introduced a version of a vaccine passport which seeks to ease movement between countries by allowing those who hold one to be exempt from quarantine or testing requirements when crossing a border into a participating country.

“The EU Digital COVID Certificate should facilitate free movement inside the EU,” the European Commission’s website explains. “It will not be a pre-condition to free movement, which is a fundamental right in the EU. “

As of July 1, citizens and residents in the EU can apply through their national authorities to have a digital COVID-19 certificate, which comes with a QR code that can be scanned to provide information on whether the individual has been fully vaccinated, has recently received a negative test or has recovered from COVID-19.

The certificate can be used in all 27 member nations, as well as a few others, such as Switzerland, Norway and Iceland.

Bowman pointed out that one wrinkle in using vaccine passports internationally is that because different countries have approved different vaccines, situations may emerge where fully vaccinated individuals have their travel complicated by the fact that they are not considered fully vaccinated in certain regions depending on the vaccine they received.

“I’ve already got issues now because of this,” he said, adding that he received AstraZeneca — a vaccine that has not been approved in regions such as the U.S.

One of his biggest concerns is the issue with privacy, saying that although “we’re being told that information would be minimal and surveillance would be non-existent,” we don’t know for sure if that would be the case.

“It absolutely looks like different provinces and different territories are going to do very different things,” he said.

Whether the concept of vaccine passports will come to mean one, standardized thing, or will spread to more regions, remains to be seen.

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