Trudeau cool to the idea of vaccine 'passports' for the post-pandemic world

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, Friday, March 12, 2021. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press - image credit)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, Friday, March 12, 2021. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press - image credit)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today he's reluctant to introduce a system of vaccine passports to show proof of immunization because of lingering concerns about inequities — but such a system might be necessary for international travel.

Some experts have suggested that the best way to return life to normal in Canada is to create a smartphone app — not unlike the existing COVID alert app — containing digital proof that an individual has been immunized against COVID-19. Such a "vaccine passport" system could allow for the resumption of mass gatherings like major sporting events and concerts.

It could also be used by some businesses, like restaurants and bars, to restrict entry to those who have gotten a shot.

A paper-based system could also be implemented for the less digitally inclined, like the system in Israel which allows individuals to carry proof that they've received a double dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

More than half of all adults in Israel have received at least one shot of the two-dose regime. The Israeli government has established a "green pass" system that allows people to bypass social distancing and masking requirements if they can show evidence of vaccination.

While he's encouraging everyone to get vaccinated, Trudeau said he's uneasy with the idea of a national program to document vaccination status. He said it could marginalize people who, for whatever reason, can't or won't get a vaccine.

"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," Trudeau said in French.

WATCH: Trudeau discusses the role of vaccine passports in post-pandemic plan

"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."

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said she shares the prime minister's "concerns" about requiring Canadians to show proof of vaccination before resuming many aspects of ordinary pre-pandemic life.

She said it ultimately would be up to the provinces to implement such a tracking system in their respective jurisdictions.

Some provinces already require that children be vaccinated against certain diseases before attending school — a model that could serve as a template for a 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.

"Certainly I know provinces and territories are deliberating about those kinds of decisions that are coming their way as more people become vaccinated," Hajdu said.

Vaccine passports for air travel

Trudeau conceded a vaccine passport program could be implemented for international travel to curb transmission risk.

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

"There are countries in the world where you shouldn't go unless you can prove you've been vaccinated against certain tropical diseases. That's well established," Trudeau said.

As for a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for international travellers, "it's something that countries are actively exploring and we're among those countries," he said in French.

WATCH: Health minister says Canada is taking part in talks about vaccine passports

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.

"We believe that Canada needs to be part of those conversations, first of all, to have influence at those tables in terms of how that might unfold," Hajdu said of the global talks.

While national governments begin to sketch out the details of such regime, the World Economic Forum (WEF) is developing something called the "CommonPass," a way for travellers to confirm their COVID status without revealing detailed health information.

The program lets travellers access lab test results or vaccination records held in existing data systems or personal digital health records apps, such as Apple Health.

A traveller walks through Terminal 3 as a COVID-19 travel order sign is displayed at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020.
A traveller walks through Terminal 3 as a COVID-19 travel order sign is displayed at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020.(Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo)

It's a program the WEF says it hopes 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 International Air Transport Association (IATA), an airline trade association that represents 290 airlines worldwide, is in the final stages of developing a digital COVID-19 vaccine passport 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.

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A senior World Health Organization (WHO) official said this week the body doesn't believe vaccine passports should be used for international travel because of numerous concerns.

At a press briefing on Monday, WHO emergencies chief Dr. Michael Ryan said there are "real practical and ethical considerations" for countries considering using vaccine certification as a condition for travel, adding the UN health agency advises against it for now.

"Quite simply, vaccination is just not available enough around the world and is not available certainly on an equitable basis," Ryan said.

WHO has noted that it's still not known how long immunity lasts from the numerous licensed COVID-19 vaccines and that data are still being collected.