British Columbia

B.C. ombudsperson urges caution if governments adopt COVID-19 vaccine passports

As British Columbia lays out plans to shed COVID-19 restrictions, the person who ensures fair access to government resources is calling for caution, especially when deciding who is eligible for relaunched services.

Ombudsperson concerned provincial or local public services could be limited based on vaccination status

A QR code is seen on a smartphone at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic, Thursday, May 13, 2021 in Montreal. The Quebec government is sending a personalized QR code to all vaccinated Quebecers. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

As British Columbia lays out plans to shed COVID-19 restrictions, the person who ensures fair access to government resources is calling for caution, especially when deciding who is eligible for relaunched services.

Vaccination certification programs are being explored in B.C. and in jurisdictions across Canada, which B.C. ombudsperson Jay Chalke said raises concerns about provincial and local public services being limited based on vaccination status.

"Good news is that public services to date are not yet widely being restricted or distinguished on the basis of people's vaccination status in Canada, but we wanted to issue a document proactively to issue a strong caution against doing so," he said. 

The organization representing the public advocates across Canada has released guidance about how so-called vaccination passports could affect receipt of services under its members' jurisdiction such as municipal, health, education and other provincial ministries.

The Canadian Council of Parliamentary Ombudsman says passports must be open to appeal, alternative services must be available for those who have not been vaccinated and governments must offer clear legislation or policy directions about how vaccine certifications are used.

The mandate of a provincial or territorial ombudsperson is to ensure people are treated fairly in the delivery of public services.

"We're expressing a lot of caution about adopting any distinction-based system," Chalke said. "But if one is to be used we have a number of suggestions about how that can be done in a way that minimizes the risk of unfairness."

Chalke says vaccine passports have the potential to "result in outcomes that are unreasonable, unfair and unjust."

"Although we're not seeing people having to provide vaccination status yet when receiving public services, we know given the highly dynamic nature of this pandemic that this kind of verification could potentially come into play in a variety of ways," Chalke said in the statement.

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B.C. provincial health office aware of concerns

As she was laying out the roadmap for reopening B.C. at a live news conference Tuesday, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said she had been working with the ombudsperson on concerns over vaccine passports.

Henry referenced inequities in society that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and said it would not be her advice to have a vaccine passport within B.C. for services in B.C.

"I do think it will be something that will be necessary to support international travel," she said.

Chalke said the government's skepticism around vaccine certification in B.C. is "great."

"I think that's a that's the right starting point to bring."

If governments do decide to restrict access to services based on a person's vaccination status, Chalke said the decision must be transparent, procedurally fair and clearly communicated.

Possible confusion created by vaccine passports will likely result in complaints to his office, he said.

He hopes the guidance issued by his colleagues across Canada will prevent unfairness by offering "proactive reminders" to governments.

"It's important for us to reach out to all the public bodies that are under our jurisdiction and say we really caution you against doing this in a way that would result in an unfair outcome."

'Not a question of if, but when and how' 

Julianne Piper, a research fellow at Simon Fraser University and project coordinator for the Pandemics and Borders Project, said vaccine passports could be difficult to enforce in B.C., but travellers will likely have to prove their immunity status before visiting other countries. 

"When it comes to international travel, it's probably not a question of if, but when and how," she told On the Coast host Gloria Macarenko. 

"There's just no way that we can open up our borders without some sort of mechanism to assess whether travelers have immunity or not," she added.

Though travellers have had to produce proof of vaccination for other diseases when travelling abroad in the past, Piper said COVID-19 and vaccine effectiveness is still unclear, making it difficult for policymakers to make decisions on vaccine passports at this time. 

Questions around what's considered immunity status, privacy and coordination between countries, and taking into account people who are ineligible or can't access vaccines are all part of that process. 

"We're still understanding how much vaccination will offer protection and for how long," she said. "We live in a very complex and globalized world and maybe some of the considerations that we need to make around how people access travel now is going to be a little bit different looking forward."

To hear Julianne Piper's interview on On the Coast, tap here: 

With files from the Canadian Press

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