Vaccine passports: Canada's ticket to the post-COVID world?

Policy Brief by Claire Borgaonkar


A hand holding two Canadian Passports. There are plane tickets sticking out the top of each passport.

Introduction


If you’re vaccinated against COVID-19 in Israel, you can go to gyms, movie theatres, bars, and other crowded venues with all the ease of pre-pandemic times [1]. Through the nation’s newly implemented “green pass” program, those who have gotten the jab or have already caught and recovered from the virus can download an app certifying their immunity [2]. This app then grants the holder access to higher-risk leisure activities that have become all but a distant memory since the onslaught of pandemic restrictions in March of last year. 


If you plan on travelling to Iceland, proof of COVID-19 vaccination will also provide perks. The European country recently became the first to implement a national “vaccine certificate” program that allows fully vaccinated travellers to bypass the nation’s mandatory 5-day quarantine [3], allowing for a small amount of international travel to safely resume. 


These countries offer a glimpse of a world governed by COVID-19 vaccine passports, which have been touted by advocates as the most efficient and reliable way for countries to transition out of national lockdown protocols. A “vaccine passport” is a record that verifies if an individual has been inoculated against a particular illness or virus – in this case, against COVID-19. The passport may be presented as a paper certificate or a Smartphone app and allows its holder to travel freely and/or engage in high-risk activities without the need to adhere to quarantines or testing mandates. 


As countries around the world scramble to implement their own vaccine passport programs, Canada remains relatively quiet on the issue. While vaccine passports could provide a boost to the economy and allow citizens to return to something resembling pre-COVID life, health experts and advocates have warned that vaccine passports could breed national and international discrimination and deepen  existing inequities. How do these costs stack up against the benefits? What would a Canadian version of a vaccine passport look like?  


The Pros - Economic Recovery and Personal Autonomy


On the “pros” side, advocates for vaccine passports have argued that they could usher in a much-needed economic recovery for some of the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, such as tourism and hospitality [4]. Without the need for quarantines and tight limits on gatherings, vaccine passport holders would be able to engage in activities like travelling, shopping, and dining with greater ease. This would encourage economic growth and could possibly save struggling businesses from permanent closures.


Vaccine passport programs would also allow citizens to regain some personal liberty lost to ongoing pandemic restrictions. Current lockdowns and quarantine restrictions “considerably curtail people’s freedom”, and that it could be considered unethical to continue to impose those measures when technology exists to determine who does and does not pose a significant risk to public health [5].


Cons - Ethical Concerns and Exacerbated Inequities


On the “cons” side, proponents of vaccine passports point to potential ethical and equity concerns. At the domestic level, vaccine passports risk creating a “have” and “have not” divide among citizens. Many people will be unable or unwilling to get the vaccine due to medical conditions, religious beliefs and personal reasons. As well, younger people with no underlying risk factors will be among the last to get access, while a vaccine has yet to be approved for use in children under the age of 16 [6]. These groups could face exclusion from societal participation for an extended amount of time.


Additionally, the use of vaccine passports to regulate international travel could exacerbate existing international inequities. In early March, the WHO advised countries not to develop vaccine passport programs as a means to increase international travel, stating that such a policy would discriminate against citizens from low-income countries where vaccine rollouts have yet to take place [7].


Due to supply shortages and vaccination  hoarding by wealthier nations, experts estimate that low-income countries will not have access to enough vaccines to begin mass immunizations until 2022 or 2023 [8]. Citizens  of these nations could therefore face significant barriers to international travel in the  wake of vaccine passports, the effects of which would be felt especially hard by  international students and those who must engage in cross-border travel for work.  


What is Canada's Position?


With the idea of vaccine passports taking off around the world, pressure is mounting for the Canadian Federal government to come up with its own plan. At the time of writing, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to release any official outline for what a Canadian vaccine passport program might look like. It seems unlikely that Canada will adopt a program as restrictive as Israel’s “green pass” that would put significant limits on domestic activities – the Prime Minister previously expressed concerns that such a system could create a significant divide between vaccinated and unvaccinated Canadians and possibly lead to widespread discrimination [9].


But a program where proof of vaccination becomes a pre-condition for entry from international destinations may be more practical. National appetite for such a program for international travellers appears to be rising, with a recent survey finding that 73 per cent of British Columbians were in favour of the concept [10]. It may even be in the nation’s best interest to come up with an international certification program – as more and more countries announce plans to implement vaccine certification programs at their international borders, Canada could lose out big on tourism and international mobility if it fails to follow suit. 


Indeed, regardless of the associated controversies, Canadian vaccine passports may be inevitable if the nation does not want to get left behind. The Federal government must therefore take swift and decisive action to implement a just and functional program. If implemented haphazardly, a national program could easily lead to widespread discrimination and unfair limits on personal freedoms; but if implemented effectively, it could usher in some modest economic relief, improve mobility, and kick off a gradual   return to pre-pandemic life. To achieve the latter scenario, Canadian policymakers must place principles of equity and non-discrimination at the centre of vaccine passport development. These principles informed the nation’s initial pandemic response – and so too must they inform its exit strategy.

  1. Leith Dunick, “Talks about possible vaccine passport for Canadians ongoing: Minister”, Orilla Matters (17 March 2021), https://www.orilliamatters.com/coronavirus-covid-19-local-news/talks-about-possible vaccine-passport-for-canadians-ongoing-minister-3551741 

  2. Oliver Holmes and Quique Kierszenbaum, “Green pass: how are Covid vaccine passports working for  Israel?”, The Guardian (28 February 2021), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/28/green-pass how-are-vaccine-passports-working-in-israel 

  3. John Last, “Iceland’s ‘COVID-19 passport’ offers preview of debate over post-vaccine travel”, CBC News (10 February 2021), https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/iceland-covid-passports-canada 1.5904828

  4. David Child, “What role could vaccine passports play in the pandemic?”, Aljazeera (13 March 2021),  https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/13/explainer-covid-19-vaccine-passports-in-750-words

  5. Rebecca C. H. Brown; Dominic Kelly, Dominic Wilkinson, Julian Savulescu, “The scientific and ethical  feasibility of immunity passports”, The Lancet 21, no. 3, (16 October 2020), p. 61,  https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(20)30766-0/fulltext

  6. Michelle Ghoussoub and Alex Migdal, “Here’s what we know about COVID-19 vaccines and children”, CBC News British Columbia (7 March 2021), https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/vaccines covid-children-1.5939316

  7. The Associated Press, “WHO cautions against vaccine passports for international travel”, Global News (9 March 2021), https://globalnews.ca/news/7685488/covid-vaccine-passport-who-inequity/

  8. The BMJ, ”Covid-19: Many poor countries will see almost no vaccine next year, aid group warns”, The BMJ (11  December 2020), https://www.bmj.com/content/371/bmj.m4809

  9. “Trudeau Government Says Vaccine Passports Could Work”, Travel Pulse Canada (14 March 2021),  https://ca.travelpulse.com/news/impacting-travel/trudeau-government-says-vaccine-passports-could work.html 

  10. “'Vaccine Passport' Regarded as Good Idea by British Columbians”, Research Co (26 March 2021),  https://researchco.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Release_Passport_BC_26Mar2021.pdf