Debate over ‘vaccine passports’ heats up in B.C. business community

Click to play video: 'B.C. businesses wary about enforcing any ‘vaccine passport’ program'
B.C. businesses wary about enforcing any ‘vaccine passport’ program
As more and more British Columbians get immunized against COVID-19, the debate over vaccine passports or certificates is heating up. As Julia Foy reports, businesses are wary about having to enforce any government program requiring proof of vaccination in order to travel or obtain a service – Mar 13, 2021

British Columbia businesses are joining the debate over so-called “vaccine passports” — potential certification of COVID-19 vaccination that could theoretically be used to get access to events or services during the pandemic.

Israel has implemented a “Green Pass” allowing citizens access to things like gyms, nearly full restaurants and theatre performances.

The EU has proposed its own Green Pass, focused on travel and tourism.

Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu says Canada is watching closely “to make sure that Canada’s not left behind if the world embarks on a new requirement for international travel that requires some form of health certification.”

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Now B.C.’s Surrey Board of Trade has weighed in, calling on senior levels of government to work with businesses on some sort of similar proposal, to allow a speedier reopening of devastated businesses.

“There needs to be some type of digital health credential to really restart the economy,” Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman said.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: ‘Very important’ that Canada is involved in international vaccine passport talks, Hadju says'
Coronavirus: ‘Very important’ that Canada is involved in international vaccine passport talks, Hadju says

“What that looks like? We don’t want to compromise equity, privacy, security, fraudulent activities. But certainly the biz community needs to be engaged in a dialogue, and it needs to happen now.”

The concept of vaccine passports is hotly debated. B.C. Premier John Horgan is on record as backing the passports for international and perhaps air travel, but was hesitant to suggest their use domestically.

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That approach was echoed by Jeremy Stone, director of Simon Fraser University’s Community Economic Development program. Stone believes the government should provide proof of vaccination for flights and international travel.

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But at home?

“I don’t think it’s necessarily the role for the government to make certain individuals or businesses … accept these or to use them in a particular way,” he said.

“That will probably just be up to civil society to determine on their own.”

Businesses around the Lower Mainland expressed concerns of their own to Global News.

Restaurateur Hassib Sarawi said his business, the Afghan Kitchen, already has its hands full with trying to enforce B.C.’s mask mandate and cap on six diners per party.

“We’re hoping that we’re able to get a lot of people vaccinated,” he said. “I don’t think it should be up to businesses to mandate [vaccine passports].”
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Click to play video: 'The Travel Lady: Will vaccination passports play a role in future travel?'
The Travel Lady: Will vaccination passports play a role in future travel?

Businesses in the fitness sector told Global News they were interested in talking about the idea but had questions about enforcement and fairness.

“I don’t think it’s the role of the fitness industry to necessarily dictate what the consumer needs to provide in order to enter our facilities, it really is our national mandate from the Fitness Industry Council of Canada to get people physically active,” Sara Hodson with Live Well Exercise said.

Carl Ulmer with Club 16 fitness raised similar concerns.

“The vaccination certificate seems a little bit restrictive, and we are really passionate about the mental and physical health of our communities, and we don’t want to be restrictive when it comes to that,” he said.

Businesses aren’t the only ones with questions about vaccine passports.

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The World Health Organization went on record last week opposing the concept, warning of numerous concerns, including ethical considerations that coronavirus vaccines are not easily available globally.

Privacy lawyer and information privacy expert Allan Richarz said requiring certification to access services raises privacy, fairness and civil liberties concerns.

Such a scheme would essentially bar certain groups — who may not have a choice in whether they can get the vaccine — from accessing services.

“You have medically compromised groups, people who have had difficulty accessing the health care system — so that includes low-income groups, people who live in remote areas … being unable to get the vaccine, even if it’s not their choice, it’s out of their hands,” Richarz said.

Requiring proof of vaccination could also potentially be viewed as an unreasonable invasion of people’s medical privacy, and run afoul of Canadians’ charter rights, he said.

The Canadian constitution always involves a balance between rights and reasonable restrictions, according to Richarz, but there could be trouble for a government who pledged vaccines would be voluntary, only to facilitate a system that restricts citizens who don’t have one.

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: WHO says ‘vaccine passports’ for travel has ethical considerations due to inequality'
Coronavirus: WHO says ‘vaccine passports’ for travel has ethical considerations due to inequality

There is an element of, one could argue coercion where the government tries to be too cute by half and they say, ‘Well, we’re not going to require you to get the vaccine, but if you don’t get it, you’re not going to be able to participate in society,'” he said.

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“So generally speaking, the courts don’t look too favourably on government trying to pull an end-run.”

While the debate has begun to get heated, it could be some time before the question of vaccine certification comes to a head.

As of Friday, B.C. had only immunized about 5.7 per cent of its population. The province is aiming to administer about 400,000 doses of vaccine by early April.

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