The Ontario government considered plans to issue digital “immunity certificates” to people as they received their COVID-19 vaccinations, handing them a pass that could be stored on their smartphone and potentially checked by long-term care home attendants, employers or airline staff. But the province has not yet decided whether to proceed with the idea.
The idea of this kind of “vaccine passport” is being debated around the world, with several countries developing similar plans, including the United States and Britain, which released new details about its proposals on Monday. Other provinces, such as British Columbia and Nova Scotia, have been considering their use, as have private companies, such as Ticketmaster. Critics, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, say the idea raises tough questions about privacy, human rights and the potential for discrimination against those who cannot receive the vaccine for medical reasons.
According to provincial government documents obtained through freedom of information legislation by researcher Ken Rubin, Ontario’s plans as of last December were detailed enough to include a mockup vaccination receipt with a QR code that links to a digital certificate, which could be stored with smartphone apps such as Apple Wallet or Google Pay and scanned to verify someone’s vaccination status.
But the province has not yet gone ahead with the program – which, according to the documents, included a potential launch in January. So far, 2.5 million vaccine doses have been given to Ontarians, with 322,197 people now fully vaccinated as of April 5.
Travis Kann, Premier Doug Ford’s executive director of communications, said the documents were drawn up to look at the government’s options, but that nothing has been finalized.
“As the documents … make clear, this is a very early summary of options if Ontario is contemplating launching a record or certificate of vaccination. No decision to do so has been made at this time,” Mr. Kann wrote in an e-mail.
After getting the shot, Ontarians are now provided with a paper receipt – but no QR code or digital version. Health Minister Christine Elliott has said previously that Ontario would offer some sort of digital proof of vaccination at a later date, in a form that could be stored on a smartphone.
Ms. Elliott even said in December that this kind of passport could be used to allow vaccinated Ontarians entry into businesses such as movie theatres, or for travel. But last month, she said the government was “not looking at that yet.”
However, the documents show these kinds of applications have been at least considered as potential uses. A summary of proposal drawn up by the Ontario Digital Service, part of the province’s Treasury Board secretariat, is outlined in a slide deck labelled “minister’s briefing” and dated Dec. 17.
The slide deck suggests the digital certificates could “speed up entry-point screening at workplaces, schools, government buildings and/or businesses” and also “motivate Ontarians to get vaccinated sooner, so they can benefit from faster access to these locations.” The vaccine certificates could also form part of a wider “Ontario Digital Identity solution,” the document says, referring to existing plans to make other forms of government ID digital.
It also cites “user research findings,” which appear to be from focus groups or surveys that suggest Ontarians were “supportive of use in nursing homes” but concerned “about use in spaces like grocery stores.”
Citing privacy concerns and distrust of government, the slide deck warns that Ontario must “proactively counter disinformation and drive a positive narrative from the start.”
In other documents, bureaucrats point out there is no current working definition of immunity to COVID-19, given uncertainties around how long vaccines last, their effects on the new variants of the virus and whether they stop transmission. They suggest instead assigning an individual “risk score” to each Ontarian on a scale of zero to five, that would signal whether someone has “full immunity,” has had one or two doses of the vaccine, a recent negative test or has no immunity at all.
The documents say concerns have been raised about “social stigma or discrimination” and that the concept raised privacy issues around sharing personal health information with “employers, airports and/or governments.”
The documents note that Ontario already has a form of immunity certification for schoolchildren, and that international travellers to certain countries can already use an app or be asked to provide hard copies of their immunization records for other diseases.
Goldy Hyder, president and chief executive of the Business Council of Canada, said he doesn’t think there should be a vaccine passport specific to only one province. (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in January the idea of a federal vaccination passport was “fraught with challenges.”)
“There’s no way I would endorse anything that says that different provinces can tell me what I need to have and not have in order for me to move around in my own country,” Mr. Hyder said.
Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases physician in Toronto who sits on Ontario’s vaccine distribution task force, said a COVID-19 passport for international travel may be inevitable. But he said he had concerns about making such a document a requirement for access to domestic activities.
“It doesn’t pass the smell test for me … I think there are obvious ethical and equity issues associated with this,” Dr. Bogoch said. “I’d be a little more concerned about implementing it within Canada.”
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.