Quebec is prepared to implement “vaccination passports” to stop people who aren’t fully vaccinated against COVID-19 from accessing certain non-essential services like restaurants and bars if the province’s situation deteriorates.
Provincial health minister Christian Dubé said the move could come as early as September 1 if necessary, but that digital vaccination passports would only be introduced in the case of a possible fourth wave brought on by the spread of variants.
The theory is that such passports would prevent the province from having to impose another blanket lockdown on non-essential services, thus reducing the impact on industries like hospitality.
Dubé, who said he hopes such a measure will not be necessary, has assured that work required of restaurants and bars would be minimal. Businesses would likely be given access to an app that would scan QR codes containing patrons’ proof of vaccination.
QR codes have already been the basis of a system used since spring. The province has been issuing them to vaccinated people so that they can be scanned to pull up information about a person’s vaccination status almost instantaneously.
Dr. Cécile Tremblay, a microbiologist and infectious diseases specialist at a major healthcare network in Montreal, told Radio-Canada she believes using vaccination passports can serve as an incentive for people who don’t see vaccination as a priority.
In Quebec, young adults between the ages of 18 and 30 represents the age group with the lowest vaccination rate (67 per cent).
Quebec would be the first province to introduce a system preventing non-vaccinate people accessing non-essential services. But other provinces have granted fully vaccinated people certain benefits.
In June, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister announced that fully vaccinated residents will be able to travel within Canada without having to self-isolate for two weeks afterwards, with an immunization card used as proof. Meanwhile, Prince Edward Island is about to start welcoming all visitors from outside Atlantic Canada and the Magdalen Islands.
Some safety concerns
However, some concerns have been expressed over ethical concerns.
Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto, said vaccine passports “absolutely come with an element of surveillance to them.” He noted that people’s movement would be tracked, which raises questions about who has access to that data and how it is stored. He added it’s also unclear how long these fundamental rights would be suspended and what would happen post-pandemic.
“I see it as an erosion of a certain amount of freedom and liberty and is it justified? When I look at it from a risk-benefit analysis, we just don’t have enough information at this point to be doing this,” said Bowman.
Back in May, Canadian privacy commissioners had also issued a warning about vaccine passports, saying measures must be taken to ensure personal information is protected.
“While this may offer substantial public benefit, it is an encroachment on civil liberties that should be taken only after careful consideration,” federal, provincial and territorial privacy commissioners and the ombudsperson’s offices in Manitoba and New Brunswick said in a joint statement.
There would also be a question mark over what happens to people who either elect not to get vaccinated or are prevented from doing so for health reasons.
However, Vardit Ravitsky, a bioethicist at the Université de Montréal, says the approach of introducing vaccine passports only in the event of an outbreak and to be used only for access to services deemed non-essential, is nuanced and non-discriminatory.
“When it’s well-targeted like that, so temporary and specific to a place or an activity, I don’t think you can talk about discrimination,” she said. “It is a public health measure applied on a proportional basis, to prevent further human rights violations.”
Ravitsky said it is an “extremely well justified” public health measure as it is focused on such a narrow field of non-essential services while vaccination proof will not be needed for essential services like grocery shopping.
Meanwhile, Montreal’s Chamber of Commerce is calling on the government to allow use of immunization certificates in Quebec as soon as possible, looking to Israel and Denmark as inspiration.
“We are thinking in particular of restaurants, bars and cultural institutions, which still cannot operate at full capacity,” Michel Leblanc, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montreal, said in a statement.