Ontario had working prototype for Covid passport system in January

By Alan S. Hale July 15, 2021

The province developed a functional vaccine passport system that was tested by at least one focus group six months ago, despite Solicitor General Sylvia Jones’s rejection on Wednesday of a mechanism to verify Ontarians’ vaccination status.

Jones made it clear in no uncertain terms that the province will not implement a Covid passport system, despite calls from groups such as the Toronto Board of Trade.

“We will not, as a province, be imposing a vaccine passport on Ontario residents,” Jones said. “We do not envision, in Ontario, where we need an Ontario-based passport.”

But there was a time when the province might have envisioned it.

One GTA business owner described taking part in a focus group in January, in which a system capable of being used to enable vaccine passports was demonstrated by representatives of the Ontario Digital Service and the Office of the Solicitor General.

The business owner, who requested anonymity in order to protect their business and governmental relationships, told Queen’s Park Today the system they were shown appeared complete and “ready to go.”

“It was basically a second button on the COVAX site where you can currently download your receipt that would add a green pass with a QR code to your digital wallet on your phone, like Apple Pay or Android Pay,” they explained.

“It only had a first name, last initial when scanned, and [only] had the last four digits of the health card to cover all of the privacy concerns. So if someone held up their health card and green QR code you knew they were good.”

Provincial officials told participants they were waiting for direction from cabinet on implementing the system. But it never saw the light of day.

“From a technology and operations standpoint, they were ready, and privacy concerns had been addressed,” the participant said. “It was more about sharing private health data that they hadn’t yet figured out.”

Jones acknowledged Wednesday that the COVAX system already tracks people’s vaccination status.

Her office told Queen’s Park Today there had been “initial discussions” focused primarily on potential technology and platforms, but not about when or why proof of immunization might be required.

In the end, the province opted to go with allowing Ontarians to download a vaccine receipt online to use as proof of vaccination. The receipt is a PDF with no QR code or digital wallet functionality, unlike the passport shown to the focus group.

Jones’ office said it would be up to the federal government to come up with a national passport system that could be recognized by Health Canada and international countries.

Business groups including the Toronto Board of Trade have been calling for a passport system to allow business owners to only admit fully vaccinated patrons, which they argue would boost safety for large events and at-capacity indoor dining.

Vice-president of policy Roselle Martino said the organization took part in some government focus groups around January on a “digital identity passport system.” But Martino said it was not TBOT’s impression the system it observed was meant to be used specifically to confirm vaccination status.

“It was part of the Covid-alert consultations, talking about the kinds of things that could entail,” Martino said.

Jones said business owners can already ask for proof of vaccination if they wish.