Montreal

Is it the right time to lift Quebec's vaccine passport system?

While some business owners and customers may be breathing a sigh of relief after the Quebec government announced its plans to abandon the vaccine passport system, reactions are mixed among experts and politicians alike.

Opposition parties want answers, experts have mixed opinions on decision

By March 14, the passport will be phased out entirely, including for restaurants, gyms, cinemas and long-term care homes. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

While some business owners and customers may be breathing a sigh of relief after the Quebec government announced its plans to abandon the vaccine passport system, reactions are mixed among experts and politicians.

Jörg Hermann Fritz, an associate professor of immunology at McGill University, said the government appears to be pandering to protesters who have been demonstrating against public health restrictions in places like Montreal and Quebec City in a show of solidarity with the larger-scale protest in Ottawa.

"I would like to see decision making based on scientific evidence that is thought through, that is well argued and justified to the public and this is not happening," said Fritz.

"As such, I'm very worried about where we're going from here."

Fritz said the virus is still circulating and he questions what will happen if another wave hits.

At a news conference on Tuesday, Health Minister Christian Dubé said the COVID-19 situation in the province has improved enough to gradually scale back the vaccine passport system which requires people to show proof of vaccination to enter places like cinemas and large stores.

As of Wednesday, Quebecers will no longer need to show a vaccine passport to enter liquor stores, cannabis shops or big retail outlets.

As of Feb. 21, the passport will no longer be required in places of worship or at funerals. By March 14, the passport will be phased out entirely, including for restaurants, gyms, cinemas and long-term care homes.

Liberal leader Dominique Anglade is among opposition party heads calling for more data on the effectiveness of the vaccine passport. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Dubé said the change will coincide with the arrival of the first COVID-specific antiviral treatments in the province.

Proof of vaccination will still be required for domestic rail and air travel, as mandated by the federal government. Masks will also still be required in all public indoor spaces in the province.

But even before the health minister made his announcement, opposition politicians at the National Assembly were demanding more information.

Opposition demands answers

Québec Solidaire's Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, Liberal leader Dominique Anglade, and the head of the Parti Québécois, Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, all want to see the scientific evidence showing both that the passport is effective, and that it is safe to end the system already.

The group of opposition leaders called for answers on Tuesday.

"Curfew, no curfew, unvaccinated tax, no unvaccinated taxes, vaccine passport which was to be deployed, maintained, is now lifted. The contradictory messages of François Legault have been numerous and it must stop," said Anglade.

On Tuesday, Quebec's interim director of public health, Dr. Luc Boileau, insisted the vaccine passport "was very effective."

He said it reduced the strain on hospitals and prevented deaths. If there is another wave, the health minister said the passport may be brought back to use.

"Me, what I would say if I had a little advice, is 'keep it on your phone,'" said Dubé of the mobile application.

Province in good shape, expert says

The plan to scale back the vaccine passport gradually makes sense, said Benoit Barbeau, a biology professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal who specializes in virology.

"I think the epidemiological situation remains favourable," he said on CBC's Let's Go, and that's despite the reduction of other public health measures, he added.

The fact that the current vaccine passport requires only two doses makes the system a bit outdated because a third dose is needed to assure better protection against COVID-19, he said.

Barbeau said he is not sure if there is any data proving the vaccine passport is effective at reducing transmission.

Come March 14, Barbeau said he doesn't expect cases and hospitalizations to shoot up as long as people remain cautious.

With so many people getting the third dose and millions of Quebecers having caught the Omicron variant, he explained, the population likely has improved immunity.

"I think we will see a continuous reduction, and with the spring coming, I think there will definitely be more outdoor activities and less transmission," he said.

with files from Lauren McCallum and CBC's Let's Go

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