Digital vaccination 'passports' coming to Quebecers Thursday, but they have no purpose yet

Quebecers have been getting an email and piece of paper after getting their first COVID-19 vaccine doses, but starting Thursday, they'll start getting the province's long-awaited official digital proof of vaccination.

It will take the form of an individual QR code that can be scanned on a cellphone, similar to a boarding pass at the airport. However, it doesn't have any uses yet -- no one will be able to read it for now.

The system has been discussed for weeks by provincial officials, but they only confirmed this week when exactly it would arrive. In the meantime, questions, and pressure, have been growing around exactly how it can be used, with some businesses and restaurants requesting the ability to scan customers for vaccination and, therefore, relax rules for them.

That won't be possible right now, Health Minister Christian Dubé said Tuesday. No one will have the corresponding system to read the codes, except for the government.

"The first step is just a technology," he explained.

"When you are at the vaccination centre, you will receive an email and you will be asked if you want that proof first -- so you need to confirm you want to receive that proof."

Many people, including the prime minister, have raised various ethical questions around how and when Canadians could be asked to show proof of vaccination.

But Dubé said he wanted to assure people that if anyone asks for your code, they can't actually read it, for the time being, since the government hasn't created a shareable program to read them.

"There is no application for this right now at all, and I'm just saying that there is no application because the only group that has the key tool to be able to read the QR code is us," he said.

"Nobody has the algorithm to read the code, so they cannot be used for anything just looking at the QR code."

'NOTHING HAS BEEN DECIDED'

The province wanted to get the codes themselves up and running as soon as possible and will deal with the next steps afterwards, he said. But those next steps are guaranteed not to happen in May, or in "the next few weeks."

He predicted more news might come at the end of June. And Quebec hasn't yet sorted through all the ethics and logistics around the idea of vaccine "passports," as many are calling them.

People with the codes "will be at one point able to use it for something, but at this stage, nothing has been decided," he said.

Also on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about the issue, saying that there are  compelling arguments on both sides -- both to encouraging proof of vaccination and not requiring it.

"Anything we can do to encourage people to get vaccinated" is going to be helpful, he said. "That's where the idea of proof of vaccination... is something to look at."

Asking people for proof of vaccination reflects the reality that Canada needs a large majority of the population vaccinated in order to safely allow certain activities, he said, and people who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons also deserve to know what the vaccination level is around them.

However, he said, there are also good reasons to maintain people's privacy around vaccination.

"We just have to reflect upon, you know, certain communities are vulnerable Canadians who might still have more difficulty accessing vaccines or might have resistance to vaccinations, because of cultural or other realities," he said, and "we have to be thoughtful about [that] as we move forward."

Trudeau and various provincial officials have also repeatedly said it's likely that Canadians will need to provide proof of vaccination to travel internationally, and federal authorities are working with counterparts in Europe and elsewhere to come up with a system for that.

But the debate in Quebec, and the privacy questions Trudeau was referring to Tuesday, were about the idea of showing proof of vaccination in daily life within Canada -- a question that's far less settled.

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