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People walk by a sign at a restaurant advising customers of Quebec’s vaccine passport, in Montreal, on Sept. 6, 2021.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

In recent days, pandemic restrictions have melted away. But this being Canada, the rules are changing at different times, in different ways, in different places.

Saskatchewan has all but declared the COVID-19 pandemic to be over. In B.C., some restrictions will remain at least until the end of June. Quebec is still talking tough, but is hinting it will soon drop its rules, too.

To be fair, there is no simple blueprint for navigating an ever-changing pandemic. Policy decisions need to be evidence-informed but the science is not always clear.

Vaccines work, at least for preventing severe illness, and three doses (at least) are required. So do masks, but to what degree is unclear. Even the infectiousness of the coronavirus fluctuates, as new variants come along.

No single public-health measure works magically. We need a combination of technical interventions (such as vaccines and air filtration) and behavioural changes (mask-wearing and physical distancing), depending on the setting – whether it’s indoor or outdoor, whether the gathering is small or large. In other words, the sands are constantly shifting, but rules tend to be rigid.

So let’s focus on one measure: the “vaccine passport,” a document that allows people to show proof of vaccination to enter congregate settings such as restaurants and sports venues. (Technically, it should be called a “certificate” or “exemption” to distinguish it from the vaccine passport needed for international travel, but perhaps that’s semantics.)

Such “passports” were introduced shortly after vaccines were rolled out broadly in January, 2021. But while Israel pioneered this approach one year ago with its “Green Pass,” Canada was slow to act. The vaccine passport idea was broadly debated in the summer of 2021. Yet some politicians were declaring victory – recall that Premier Jason Kenney famously stated that Alberta was “open for summer.”

What followed, predictably, was a huge surge of cases. By September of last year, Canada (and mostly the West) was being walloped by a fourth wave of COVID-19, leaving virtually every province scrambling to implement a vaccine passport system.

Six months and a fifth wave wrought by the Omicron variant later, the question is: are they still needed?

To answer that, we need to remember why we introduced proof-of-vaccination rules in the first place.

There were three reasons: The first was to reward the double-vaccinated, which at the time represented about three in four eligible Canadians; the second was to pressure the unvaccinated to get shots because virtually everyone hospitalized or in critical care with COVID-19 was unvaccinated; the third was to provide clear rules for businesses so patrons would feel safe in restaurants and other venues.

A lot has changed in the short time since vaccine passport systems began.

With even more Canadians now eligible, more than 85 per cent of them are now double-vaccinated. But with immunity waning, two shots are no longer sufficient for many; only 44 per cent of people have had a third shot.

We have also endured a massive wave of Omicron, which likely infected millions of Canadians. Meanwhile, we have virtually abandoned testing so many of those cases have not been confirmed, even though they have conferred some immunity.

So, at this point, do we toughen the vaccine passport rules, so that only people with three shots are considered adequately vaccinated? That would be impractical – unfair, even – especially given the current recommendation that people wait three months after a suspected COVID-19 case to get their third shot.

But the alternative that most provinces are embracing – dropping vaccine passports altogether – gives the unvaccinated a free pass, which feels like a slap in the face to the overwhelming majority of Canadians who have had their shots. It also puts those who are at greatest risk in society (the immunocompromised) in danger.

That is some cruel pandemic math.

In recent days, politicians such as Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Ontario Premier Doug Ford have argued that the economic costs of vaccine passports outweigh public-health benefits. That’s a compelling argument on the surface, but we should be insisting – as any good math teacher would – that they show us their work. It’s not a given that dropping proof-of-vaccination rules will result in an economic boost, for example, people flocking to restaurants (except maybe the unvaccinated). If the larger public is not convinced that “the world’s done with it” (to quote Mr. Ford), dropping restrictions could backfire. Smartly, some businesses are opting to maintain proof-of-vaccination policies, but it will be tougher to enforce without government backing.

And then there’s the most bedevilling question of all, one that politicians have steadfastly sidestepped: what happens if there is another wave of COVID-19 – perhaps from a variant that’s more lethal?

If we dispense with vaccine passports now, it’s not clear that we’ll realistically be able to reinstitute rules in a few months.

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