COVID-19 'vaccine passports' could be abused in Manitoba, legal experts warn

Legal experts warn Manitoba must ensure COVID-19 immunization cards won't be used to discriminate against people in the workplace, at gathering places or anywhere else within the province when the wallet-sized documents are made available this spring.

Province urged to legislate against discrimination against unvaccinated Manitobans at workplaces, businesses

Travellers could soon be required to show proof of COVID-19 immunization in some countries. Manitoba plans to offer these cards before July. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

Legal experts warn Manitoba must ensure COVID-19 immunization cards won't be used to discriminate against people in the workplace, at gathering places or anywhere else within the province when the wallet-sized documents are made available this spring.

The province plans to offer people fully inoculated against COVID-19 immunization cards before the end of June, said Dr. Joss Reimer, the medical lead of Manitoba's vaccination implementation task force.

The cards are intended to allow Manitobans to demonstrate proof of immunization when they travel to other political jurisdictions that may demand these documents.

"What we didn't want is for Manitobans to be disadvantaged compared to any other jurisdiction if, say, another country has a requirement that you demonstrate that you've been immunized before you can go to that country," Reimer said Thursday in an interview.

The cards will only contain COVID-19 immunization records and no other medical information, she said, adding they are not intended for use within Manitoba.

Experts in law and bioethics say the province must pass legislation or enact regulations to ensure immunization cards won't be used domestically, arguing the government has an obligation to prevent the cards from violating rights and freedoms here at home.

"The really important thing to understand is we do not want to live in a world where people's movement is constrained by their biology," said Francoise Baylis, research professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax and the 2020-21 Wayne Morse Chair in Law and Politics at the University of Oregon.

"If people can demand it from you at the border, you might understand that. But what happens when you want to go into a religious venue or a restaurant or a museum or a concert and people are now requiring this kind of documentation from you?"

Françoise Baylis, research professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said governments have a moral obligation to ensure vaccine records aren't used against their citizens. (Françoise Baylis)

Baylis said entire groups of people face discrimination if immunization cards are allowed to be used domestically. That includes Manitobans who can not be vaccinated because they're immunocompromised, don't wish to get their shots for religious reasons, are too young to be vaccinated or simply can't get vaccinated because of continuing supply shortages.

"Ultimately this is a tool, and like all tools, it can be used for good or evil," she said.

On Thursday, Health Minister Heather Stefanson said in a statement "employers and other parties should not be requesting proof of immunization for any purpose."

That advice must be backed up with clear legal direction, said Brandon Trask, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba's law faculty.

"It's a very, very slippery slope, as soon as we give that opening where initially — out of fear, maybe — governments allow or otherwise turn a blind eye to companies gathering private health information, which, frankly, they have no business gathering in the first place," Trask said.

"Once that information is out, you can't unscramble an egg."

NDP Leader Wab Kinew also called for regulation, calling the immunization cards "a rush job."

The Progressive Conservative government has no immediate plans to create this legislation, said spokesperson Blake Robert, who nonetheless left the door open to the possibility.

"We will closely monitor the rollout of secure immunization cards and take the appropriate measures to ensure that they are used only for their intended purposes," Robert said in a statement.

Dr. Joss Reimer, the medical lead of Manitoba's vaccination task force, said immunization cards will allow travellers to visit jurisdictions that demand proof of immunization. (Marina von Stackelberg/CBC)

Baylis also urged the province to ensure the cards can not be forged or copied easily and that the information embedded within them is secure.

Reimer said the province is just beginning to speak to manufacturers and is not yet certain whether the cards will contain static information or be embedded with programmable chips that could be updated when, for example, the bearer gets a booster shot.

Right now, some of the science involving the immunity conferred by COVID-19 vaccines remains unclear, she explained.

"For most vaccines, the likelihood that somebody can transmit the infection after they're immunized is very, very low. We don't have enough data yet to say that conclusively with COVID," Reimer said.

"But we don't want to wait. We want to have the systems in place so that when we have that information, we're ready to go, because these these things can take months to put together."

Before the cards are available, Manitobans with a valid provincial health card and a personal email address can access the information on the same Shared Health online portal used to see COVID-19 test results.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.


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