Quebec will slowly put an end to its COVID-19 vaccine passport system, the province’s health minister announced Tuesday.
“We are withdrawing it gradually as we learn to live with the virus,” Christian Dubé told reporters in Quebec City.
The passport will no longer be used for big-box stores as well as the government-run liquor and cannabis stores starting Wednesday. Proof of vaccination will not be required to access places of worship and funeral homes as of Feb. 21.
Quebec’s vaccine passport system will be fully lifted for all settings — including restaurants, bars and entertainment venues — starting March 14.
Dubé said the program, which came into effect last September, has been successful in achieving the government’s objectives of protecting Quebecers and the health-care network as the pandemic continued.
When asked if the government was caving in to pressure from recent anti-mandate demonstrations, Dubé said, “No, not at all.”
“I think we’re doing it because it’s the right time to do it, because it’s safe for public health,” he said.
But the health minister did warn the province could reinstate proof of vaccination against the novel coronavirus if necessary. He also recommended people keep their passports on their phones, especially if they decide to travel.
The move comes one day after Premier François Legault said he would meet with public health officials to discuss whether the province’s vaccine passport system should remain in use.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced on Monday the proof-of-vaccination mandate in his province will be lifted as of March. Alberta and Saskatchewan have already ended similar requirements, while the Manitoba government also plans to lift its own system next month.
Omicron a ‘different ball game’
Luc Boileau, Quebec’s interim director of public health, said that about 600,000 people have been vaccinated since the passport was enacted last fall. It also gave Quebecers a sense of security at the time, when the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus was dominant.
But officials say the Omicron variant has changed things.
“We have a different ball game,” Dubé said.
Quebecers initially only needed to have two doses of COVID-19 vaccine to obtain a passport, but Boileau says two doses don’t generate the same protection against Omicron as they did against Delta.
“The situation is different with Omicron and in this perspective, it’s important that people remain prudent and get their third dose.”
The government couldn’t expand the passport to three doses because nearly two million Quebecers caught the virus since the start of the fifth wave in December 2021, representing nearly 25 per cent of the population. Boileau said those people should wait eight to 12 weeks from their infection before they get a third dose.
Boileau said that by the time those Quebecers get their third shot, the current Omicron wave is expected to be over.
He added that the Omicron subvariant scientists have dubbed BA.2 has been detected in the Montreal area and is composing about 10 to 15 per cent of new cases. While the new subvariant is about 30 per cent more transmissible than the original Omicron variant, it is not more severe.
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Mask mandate still in effect
When asked if Quebec had plans to lift its mask mandate, Boileau said Tuesday it was too soon to do that.
Boileau said the epidemiological situation has improved enough to make some changes, but that the province still needs to be prudent.
While the number of pandemic-related hospitalizations is dropping, it still remains high with over 2,000 patients across Quebec who have contracted the virus. That is why health rules need to be eased slowly, he said.
“The health system is still fragile,” Boileau said. “It’s going better but it’s still fragile.”
Quebec is in the midst of gradually loosening health restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. Business closures and other measures were ordered last December as cases soared.
Gyms and spas were able to welcome clients at half capacity this week as the province entered its latest stage of reopening.
—with files from The Canadian Press