Get Our Canada Immigration Newsletter

vaccine passports

Is COVID-19 Vaccine Passports program coming to Canada?

UPDATED: Are vaccine passports here in Canada? Please see ★ Canada exemptions for fully vaccinated travellers (FVTs) effective July 5, 2021.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a March 12 news conference that he’s reluctant to introduce a system of vaccine passports (or e-vaccination certificates) to show proof of immunization because of lingering concerns about inequities — but such a system might be necessary for international travel. While he is encouraging everyone to get vaccinated, Trudeau said he’s uneasy with the idea of a national domestic program to document vaccination status. He said it could marginalize people who, for whatever reason, can’t or won’t get a vaccine.

vaccine passports

“The idea of certificates of vaccination for domestic use does bring in questions of equity. There are questions of fairness and justice. There could be discrimination”

“There are some people who, because of medical conditions or other reasons, will not be able to get vaccinated. There are others who are not on priority lists who will have to wait much longer before getting vaccinations. These are things that we have to take into account.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, Friday, March 12, 2021

As vaccines continue to roll out across the globe, conversations surrounding “vaccine passports” or any other kind of government-issued papers used to show a person has been inoculated against COVID-19 are ramping up.

Trudeau conceded a vaccine passport program could be implemented for international travel to curb transmission risk. He said Canada is participating in talks with other countries about such a program.

Dominic LeBlanc, the minister of intergovernmental affairs, said Canada is working with international partners now to develop a program to verify that incoming travellers have had a COVID-19 shot — a system that could be implemented after vaccines become more readily available worldwide in the coming months.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a Montreal, Quebec-based association of the world’s airlines, is a big fan of vaccine passports and is mounting pressure to see vaccine passports go ahead. IATA supports re-opening borders to travel once health workers and the vulnerable have been vaccinated, as the greatest risks will have been mitigated. All vaccinated individuals should be immediately exempted from travel restrictions and quarantine. See IATA Vaccines and Air Travel Position Paper.

Nevertheless, IATA echoes Trudeau’s sentiments, saying that “It is governments, not airlines, that will decide what travelers need to enter their country. There are significant populations who cannot or will not be vaccinated.” In an interview with Reuters in February 2021, Prime Minister Trudeau noted many people will likely choose to not get vaccinated for many reasons, including valid medical reasons. “There are people who won’t get vaccinated and not necessarily through a personal or political choice,” said Trudeau. Making vaccine passports mandatory when many will choose not to get vaccinated for any number of reasons could lead to unexpected, undesirable effects the Canadian prime minister said he wants to avoid.

“The indications that the vast majority of Canadians are looking to get vaccinated will get us to a good place without having to take more extreme measures that could have real, divisive impacts,” Trudeau said.

What are Vaccine Passports?

COVID-19 vaccine passports are documentation, paper or electronic, that proves that an individual has received COVID-19 vaccination, thereby clearing the way for them to participate in activities that were previously prohibited or restricted duee to COVID-19 pandemic. The idea is that being in possession of a vaccine passport will facilitate safe return to many aspects of ordinary pre-pandemic life, in particular international travel and social/entertainment gatherings.

Neil McArthur, associate professor and director of the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics, said it’s more of a licence than a passport. “The term passport can be a little misleading, because we’re not [just] talking about travelling internationally… This is more like a kind of licence that you would need to do certain kinds of activities, whether it’s to be in group situations or to go to work.”

“I think the first thing that’s going to be part of the conversation is people needing their immunization to go to work and to go to school and to go to university. Those are the things that have the greatest social and economic impacts.” said McArthur.

If implemented correctly, vaccine passports will go a long way in the return to normalcy. People are going to start travelling, eating out, going to sports events and social/entertainment gatherings etc. They are going to want to feel safe and therefore many are not going to have an issue about carrying a vaccine passport.

The concept of a vaccine passport is not new. Some Canadian provinces already require that children be vaccinated against certain diseases before attending school — a model that could serve as a template for a COVID-19 vaccine passport program. Ontario and New Brunswick require immunization for diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps and rubella for all students, while Manitoba requires a measles vaccination.

Before COVID-19 , some countries — including many in Africa — required travellers to provide proof of immunization against diseases like yellow fever before entry.

Vaccine Passports – Who is doing what?

According to CTV News, Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba have said they are considering vaccine passports for schools, but director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University, Lori Turnbull, says the situation is “tricky.”

“In the initial stages because we’ve never done something like this before, I think what the government is going to have to do is issue really clear guidelines to everybody on what is an appropriate what is an inappropriate use of these things,” Turnbull said on CTV’s Your Morning Tuesday.

Turnbull said that Canadians can expect some “confusion in the early stages” of developing vaccine passports as the COVID-19 pandemic is an “evolving situation.”

“I think the clearer the government can be on what is the right way and what isn’t for these things to be used is where the key is,” she said.

Israel has already rolled out a COVID-19 vaccine passport, and while questions remain about its security several European countries have followed suit and expressed they are considering implementing their own. Denmark and Sweden announced in February they were developing digital passports. On March 1, President of the European Commissions Ursula von der Leyen tweeted that a proposed “Digital Green Pass” would assists EU citizens move around safely for work or tourism.

Von der Leyen specified the pass would also contain the results of a COVID-19 test for those who cannot be vaccinated, and would “respect data protection, security and privacy.”

The European Union is fuelling the momentum initiated by these European countries. It’s developing a framework that will allow certificates from each individual European country to interoperate, smoothing out safe travel between the 27 bloc nations. And they want it in place as soon as this summer.

China has launched a digital COVID-19 vaccination certificate for its citizens planning cross-border travels. The certificate issued by China will have details about the holder’s COVID-19 vaccination information and coronavirus test results, the Department of Consular Affairs under China’s foreign ministry said on its website. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Sunday that the aim of the certificate is to achieve mutual verification of information such as nucleic acid testing and vaccination, and contribute to safe and orderly interaction of people.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) is developing something called the “CommonPass,” a way for travelers to confirm their COVID-19 status without revealing detailed health information. The WEF says it hopes that the program will ease “border restrictions, lockdowns and stalled tourism that has led to a host of problems including global job losses, food insecurity and expanding poverty.” The program lets travelers access lab test results or vaccination records held in existing data systems or personal digital health records apps, such as Apple Health.

Canada-based International Air Transport Association (IATA) is developing a digital COVID-19 health certification for travellers. The digital health document, called the IATA Travel Pass, will allow travellers to certify that they have immunity from COVID-19, either through a past infection or vaccination, and to share that information with airlines and border authorities. The app also could store COVID-19 testing information. Initially it will hold test data which governments are already requiring. But it can accommodate vaccine data and support vaccine passports, should governments require it.

Singapore Airlines is the first airline in the world to announce it will pilot the IATA’s Travel Pass App, starting with Singapore-to-London flights from Monday next week through to March 28. In that pilot program, passengers with Apple’s operating systems will be able to download the app and create a digital identification with a profile photo and passport information. They will also be able to put their flight information into the app.

When they go online to book their pre-departure COVID-19 test at one of seven participating clinics in Singapore, those travellers will register with the clinic using the digital ID and flight information in the app. The IATA’s registry will provide the back-end information on the COVID-19 testing and entry requirements.

Those travellers will then need to show their confirmed status in the app to the check-in staff at the airport before departure but still need to bring a physical copy of their health certificate issued by the clinic where they took their COVID-19 test.

Vaccine Passports – Implementation Challenges

Vaccine passports raise the prospect of further dividing the world along the lines of wealth and vaccine access, creating ethical and logistical issues that have alarmed decision-makers around the world.

“There’s a huge moral crisis in equity globally because in high income countries like Israel or the United States or the EU countries, we’re likely to get to herd immunity by the end of this year,” he said. “But for many low-income countries, most people won’t be vaccinated for many years. Do we really want to give priority to people who already have so many privileges?”

Lori Turnbull, director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University, identifies several challenges facing vaccine passports implementation. First, the vaccine passports would have to be based on data, and flexible enough that if everything is working right, people who cannot get vaccines, such as those who are immunocompromised, would be able to have that noted in the system and “get a pass.”

Second, there will be global standardization and interoperability issues. Turnbull said it would be interesting to observe the development of vaccine passports by different global governments – how they compile them, what data they use and who will accept whose passport across borders.

“This is going to be a long complex global dialogue,” Turnbull said, noting many ideas are being floated – including a “standardized” vaccine passport across the world.

Many countries around Europe are scrambling to develop their own vaccine certification systems to help revive summer travel, generating a risk that different systems won’t work properly across the continent’s borders. “I think there is huge potential for not working well together,” said Andrew Bud, CEO of facial biometrics company iProov, which is testing its digital vaccination passport technology within the U.K.’s National Health Service.

“I think that’s what a lot of people might want,” Turnbull said. “You wouldn’t want to see places where one digital passport is accepted and another is not – that’s going to lead to a lot of inequitable situations across the world.”

Turnbull also said that if the international community is going to adopt a single model, “who’s going to lead that conversation? And what happens if some places don’t have the digital capacity to keep up with that?”

Lastly, for vaccine passports to be effective, there is the obvious issue of vaccine availability and take-up. The vaccine is not available to everyone in the world, whether due to supply or cost. And some people don’t want it, for religious or other reasons. Most countries don’t have enough vaccine, highlighting the fraught ethical landscape of who can get it and how to lift the burden of COVID-19.

“If we see some parts of the world that are not able to get into this conversation because they don’t have access to vaccines, that’s a global problem we will have to deal with,” Turnbull said. “COVID is not an isolated issue for anybody, we all have to sort it out together.” 

Last April, the initiative known as COVAX was formed by the WHO, with the initial goal of getting vaccines to poor countries at roughly the same time shots were being rolled out in rich countries. It has missed that target, and 80% of the 210 million doses administered worldwide have been given in only 10 countries, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week.

Ghana on Wednesday became the first of 92 countries to get vaccines for free through the initiative. COVAX announced that about 600,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in the African nation. That’s a fraction of the 2 billion shots the WHO aims to deliver this year.

Related: Travellers to Canada must now use ArriveCAN app

See also ★ Canada announced new ArriveCAN app update for fully vaccinated travellers