Health Minister Patty Hajdu says her government embraces the concept of “vaccine passports” and will come up with a form of certification to allow vaccinated Canadians to travel internationally again.
“Canadians are going to want to travel and just like there have been changes in other kinds of travel requirements over the years as a result of a number of events, Canadians need to be prepared to be able to travel internationally. And we’ll make sure that they are,” Hajdu told CBC Radio’s The House in an interview airing today.
As countries make progress on their COVID-19 vaccine rollouts, a debate is heating up over how to revive the international travel sector that was flattened by the global pandemic.
That discussion has focused on the idea of a digital passport or vaccine certificate that would allow citizens of one country to prove to border officials in another country that they are fully vaccinated or have tested negative for the virus.
The European Union is in talks with the United States about Europe’s Digital Green Certificate scheme, which means Americans might be able to visit the continent as soon as this summer.
EU officials laid out some details of those discussions on Monday but said that, for the moment, the EU was not speaking to any other countries about reopening international borders to non-essential travel.
In March, Hajdu told reporters that the topic had come up in a meeting between G7 health ministers. Since then, discussions with allies have continued.
“I am meeting on a regular basis with my G7 counterparts and this is an ongoing conversation about how that might look and how we might be able to have some sort of standardized approach to this,” she told host and CBC National Editor Chris Hall.
The EU’s planned Digital Green Certificate is a document that can be carried on a smartphone. It would tell officials in other countries that the bearer has been vaccinated, what vaccine was used, whether they have tested negative and whether they have recovered from COVID-19.
Each EU country would be responsible for issuing the certificate, which could happen through hospitals, test centres or national health authorities. EU member states would have to accept travellers with valid certificates provided they were vaccinated with a shot approved for use in the EU.
“I would say that our goal is to open the borders as soon as possible … when it is safe to do so, safe for Europeans and safe for visitors from other countries, including from Canada,” EU Ambassador to Canada Melita Gabrič told The House.
Gabrič said a number of different factors will be considered when deciding whether to extend the scheme to other countries, including infection rates, variants of concern and vaccination rates.
The ambassador also said that while the EU as a whole is developing the digital certificate program, “European countries can decide to waive certain public health restrictions currently in place, such as testing or quarantine based on proof of vaccination.”
The United Kingdom said that it is working on a plan to adapt its National Health Service phone app — which is used to access medical records, book appointments and order prescriptions — to work as a digital vaccination and testing verification tool.
The World Health Organization is working on its own version called a Smart Vaccination Certificate. Israel is looking at adapting its Green Pass — which lets vaccinated Israelis visit restaurants, gyms, concerts and sporting events — to international travel.
The International Air Traffic Association (IATA), based in Montréal, is currently testing its Travel Pass Initiative. It would require passengers to create a digital version of their passports using a phone app, which would then be able to upload medical records that could be verified by border officials around the world.
What is Canada working on?
Speaking to The House this week, Hajdu said that Canada is talking to its G7 allies and working toward an international consensus on how a system, or multiple systems, would work across governments. She also hinted that Canada is looking at adapting an existing app.
“From our perspective we have a bit of a head start in terms of entry into Canada in that we have ArriveCan, the app that allows for digital proof of testing … and a variety of other documents that people have to submit to enter Canada,” Hajdu told Hall.
“We’ll be working with our international partners to make sure that whatever the world lands on, Canadians will have documents in the appropriate format.”
The ArriveCan app is required for almost all Canadians entering Canada by land or air. The app allows air travellers to register when they book into their mandatory three-day stay at a government authorized hotel.
The app also allows travellers to register the results of COVID-19 tests before and after they arrive in Canada, provide details to border agents about their quarantine plans if they cross at a land border, and provide contact information for themselves and the people travelling with them.
Are there any privacy concerns?
Civil liberties associations and governments have raised a great many concerns about individual privacy as the digital passport discussion has evolved.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has said that it will not be pushing for mandatory vaccination credentials or a federal vaccine database because of sensitive legal and political issues.
Brenda McPhail, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s privacy, technology & surveillance project, told CBC News that the data protection issues involved in vaccine certification documents are significant.
“Health information is some of the most sensitive information about us, which means we have to ask critical, very granular questions about exactly what data is collected, including what kind of identifiers are used and how they’re verified, where data comes from and how it travels through a system, from app to airline to border control,” she said.
McPhail said that people who are exempt from vaccination because of health conditions may be expected to share additional information to prove to a foreign government that their condition is genuine, putting their personal data at risk.
The IATA app, McPhail said, raises additional questions about the use of facial recognition technology in tandem with personal health data.
“Allowing the app to use your passport photo and map your face raises all the issues inherent to [facial recognition technology], including risks of discriminatory impacts,” she said.
Another source of risk is the fact that medical records in Canada are stored at the provincial level. “It’s a truism that the more touch points there are for a piece of data, the more at-risk it is,” she said.
In a statement, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario said that existing laws restricting the sharing of Ontario residents’ personal health information could present further challenges to developing a digital vaccine certification.
“The provincial government would only be able to share non-identifying information, such as de-identified information or aggregate data, with its federal counterparts,” the statement said.