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Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé shows an app on his phone as he announces details of the province's COVID-19 vaccination passport during a news conference in Montreal on Aug. 10, 2021.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Unvaccinated people in Quebec will be denied access to non-essential public spaces such as bars, restaurants and gyms as of Sept. 1, the province’s Health Minister announced on Tuesday as he revealed details of the most sweeping vaccine passport policy in the country.

Health Minister Christian Dubé said at a news conference on Tuesday that Quebeckers would need to scan a code on a smartphone application to get into busy public spaces, including festivals and concert venues. Employees at those businesses will not face the same vaccination requirement to avoid running afoul of labour laws, Mr. Dubé said. People from other provinces and countries will also have to use the system.

The announcement continues Quebec’s record of aggressive and controversial responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, which ravaged the province’s long-term care sector during the first wave. With its long winter curfew and early decision to delay second doses of the vaccine, Quebec has regularly staked out distinct policy terrain from the rest of the country, sometimes inspired by ideas in Europe.

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Canadian business community largely supportive of vaccine passport system

The province will begin to test the passport at a Quebec City sports bar this week, the first of at least two pilot projects intended to smooth out technical issues before the formal launch in September.

The system will cover all of Quebec, not just hard-hit regions as the government previously said, in response to rising case counts and the growing prevalence of the more-contagious Delta variant of the novel coronavirus. The Health Minister presented the expansive new policy as a way to prevent another round of lockdowns in a fall resurgence of the virus.

“A fourth wave is inevitable in Quebec,” he said. “The idea is to give access to these locations only to people who are fully vaccinated, instead of closing them like we have during the first three waves.”

The provinces are divided over whether to require proof of vaccination for certain activities.

Internationally, vaccine passports are gaining currency. Israel, France and New York, among other places, have announced or implemented restrictions on access to at least some businesses based on vaccination status.

The government of Canada is working on a proof-of-vaccination system for international travel.

Quebec will become the third province in Canada to use a vaccine passport of some kind, after Manitoba and PEI, although Quebec’s will be the most comprehensive. Visitors to PEI can apply for a proof-of-vaccination pass to allow them to enter the province without self-isolating, while residents of Manitoba with proof of two shots can attend some large gatherings such as pro sporting events.

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Other provinces, such as Alberta, say they have no plans to implement a vaccine passport program. Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said on Tuesday that her government will not mandate vaccinations, and individual businesses can decide whether to require them for staff or patrons.

“That has always been our position – that we are not mandating vaccines, that that is something for people to choose for themselves, but we encourage people to get vaccinated,” she told reporters at a hospital announcement in Collingwood, Ont.

Ms. Elliott also raised concerns that proof-of-vaccination smart cards could be subject to fraud, and said Ontario’s paper and e-mail confirmations of second doses will suffice.

Ontario business groups want to avoid lockdown with COVID-19 vaccine certificate system

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, said at his weekly briefing that Ontario-specific vaccination passports are a government decision, but he does not think they are “absolutely necessary” now. Still, he said policies will be reviewed over time.

“I don’t think any door has been formally closed, but we are achieving the goals we wanted to achieve,” he said, adding that he expects vaccination numbers to climb again in September. So far, 81 per cent of Ontarians aged 12 and up have received one dose, and 72 per cent are fully vaccinated. Dr. Moore said the province’s goal is 85 per cent to 90 per cent fully vaccinated.

Despite their different approaches, Quebec will work with Ontario to make sure qualifying residents of that province are able to use Quebec’s vaccine passport, said Mr. Dubé, noting the close links between the provinces.

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Quebec also boasts high rates of vaccination, with 84.8 per cent of residents above the age of 12 having received one dose, and 72.2 per cent fully vaccinated, according to its public-health institute. The province continues to nudge reluctant Quebeckers to get their shots in creative ways – a provincial lottery open to fully vaccinated people held its first draw last week – and Mr. Dubé said he hopes the passport system will encourage uptake.

“Don’t wait to hit a wall in September – go get vaccinated,” he said at his news conference, which was briefly interrupted by a protester opposed to public-health measures.

Geneviève Beaulieu-Pelletier, a psychologist and associate professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal, said the passport system could help overcome some vaccine hesitancy by giving hardened opponents an excuse to get their shots while saving face. “There are people who don’t dare give up their position,” she said. Now, they can say they didn’t have a choice.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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