May 29, 2021

Canada needs a national travel framework and health passes

Albertans this week got a dose of good news with a clear pathway to reopening based on science and targets. With this plan, and as vaccine rollout continues across Canada, dreams of sandy beaches and days without deadlines don’t seem as farfetched as they once did.

Two weeks ago, I was pleased to join dozens of my association, council and chamber colleagues in sending a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking the government of Canada to develop, in collaboration with the provinces, “a clear and consistent pan-Canadian approach to reopening our communities, schools and businesses.” In order to realize dreams of sandy beaches and visiting friends and loved ones, the approach must include two things: a national framework for travel and a digital health pass.

In the same way border authorities prohibit the transportation of plants and certain foods without permits due to the possibility of invasive species or disease, provinces and countries are looking to do the same as the pandemic wains, ensuring that anyone crossing their borders will not reintroduce a highly impactful virus or place undue burden on the local health system. This is ever more important when we consider variants that are still emerging, and an unclear picture on how long this virus may remain a problem for humanity. I, for one, think it will be longer than we’d like and may be endemic, much like the seasonal flu.

The first part of the antidote to this situation is a national travel framework. What we have today is a patchwork of regulations within our country, as does the rest of the world toward us. Some places you can travel to freely, some not at all, others only if you are fully vaccinated. Federal leadership is needed to set a broad framework for how travel will work into, out of and within Canada, and then underneath that framework, provinces can address issues depending on their own situation.

Alberta’s Open for Summer Plan is demonstrating how vaccinations can be the best form of economic stimulus. When strong vaccine uptake is combined with sensible behaviours and public policy, they offer the promise of a needed boost to the economy through tourism and renewed support of small businesses, which will ultimately lead to increased prosperity for all Albertans.

Like Alberta’s reopening plan, our national framework should be forward-leaning, based on science and targets.

Achieving that requires the second ingredient: digital health passes. Already being employed by the International Air Travel Association with its Travel Pass, many countries across the globe are looking to digital health passes that could be shown to border authorities reporting proof of testing or vaccination. For Canadians, this health pass must be an entirely voluntary undertaking. But if we want to see renewed travel, tourism, live experiences and the resumption of cross-border business, we must accept health passes as one tool to help safely speed our way to that future.

The reality is this is happening whether we like it or not, with jurisdictions around the world, and in Canada, already giving differentiated access to vaccinated individuals. Israel, the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States are all developing forms of certification that can be employed for travel assurances internationally. The only question is whether we’d like to play a lead role in developing or collaborating on a tool or have it imposed on us. Or worse still, be left out of the travel and tourism recovery. At a minimum, our approach should align with the U.S.

Currently, many countries have a two-tier approach to international travel, with requirements for negative testing pre- and post-travel, 10–14-day quarantines on either end depending on the country, and intentionally punitive costs for travellers. Increasingly, many of these countries, like those in Europe, are waiving these requirements for the fully vaccinated. In Canada, Yukon is following suit, offering quarantine-free access to the vaccinated.

There’s a big incentive to do this from an economic standpoint too. Economist Tim Quinlan, suggests that 4.5 years’ worth of spending on travel and services could take place in the coming months as restrictions relax, which in turn could help support Canada’s economy if an effective travel framework and health passport system is put into place to capitalize on it. If we don’t take advantage of this new opportunity, we may miss the literal boat.

Understandably, some hesitancies exist around the concept of health passports that span legal, ethical and privacy-related concerns.

Beyond this, special attention needs to be paid to racialized and marginalized communities, and individuals who, for medical reasons, cannot get vaccinated. Should those who cannot get vaccinated be unable to travel indefinitely as a result of their ailments? Can, and should, we endorse health exemptions within the travel framework? And most importantly, how do we effectively build trust and rapport with communities with low vaccination intentions due to historical harms?

Rather than shying away from these complex questions, it is imperative that we embrace these concerns as areas of importance as Canada moves towards reopening our borders. And address them quickly and directly. Starting with inter-provincial travel, we must first look within, continuing to vaccinate our populations, easing restrictions to reintroduce much-needed group activities and reopening businesses to full capacity.

The prize of getting this right is immense. If we can recover employment in our hardest-hit sectors like travel and tourism, Canada could potentially hit employment levels greater than those before the pandemic.

For our public health and our economy, it’s the right thing to do.

As appeared in the Calgary Herald

Adam Legge is president of the Business Council of Alberta.

Feature image credit: Azin Ghaffari/Postmedia

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