Opinion

The extraordinarily slow plan to reopen the border

Justin Ling: The public is distrustful of a reopening and the Liberals are ill-prepared. It doesn't bode well for a return to normal anytime soon.

The Trudeau government is keeping shut the U.S-Canada border for the foreseeable future, with no clear end date in place nor with any metrics on when, and how, the border will reopen.

Nothing will change about the border measures at all until July 5, when fully-vaccinated travellers coming into Canada will no longer have to quarantine, providing they test negative for the virus when crossing.

It’s a painfully minor development that appears fundamentally at odds with the reality on the ground in the United States and Canada, where case counts are plummeting and vaccines are being put in arms at an ambitious pace.

It is particularly frustrating for towns and businesses that rely on cross-border traffic, a hurting tourism sector, families separated by the restrictions, workers who have endured the two-week quarantine one or more times, and scores of others.

Through it all, Ottawa has promised that it is working furiously to bring online technologies that will allow for this reopening: Allowing Canadians, workers, and tourists alike to come-and-go from the country. 

Sources who spoke to Maclean’s, however, said those technologies—from an app tasked with scanning physical vaccine cards, to a digital vaccine passport—have not been pursued with any kind of urgency.

The sluggish pace of reopening seems to belie two intertwined issues: The Trudeau government is coasting on a swell of public opinion that remains distrustful and anxious of even our nearest neighbours; and Ottawa seems fundamentally ill-prepared for a broader reopening. 

What’s in a target?

For months, the Trudeau government has responded to questions about the border by saying that, in order for things to get “back to normal,” as the Prime Minister said in May, that “cases need to be under control, and over 75 per cent of people need to be vaccinated”—sometimes adding that 20 per cent equally need to have both doses.

Canada is set to hit those targets this week, yet normal still feels a hundred miles off.

Both the United States and Canada have seen cases, hospitalizations and deaths plummet over the Spring: For months, America reported a lower rate of cases than Canada for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

According to CTV, three-quarters of Canada have received at least one vaccine dose while just shy of 20 per cent are fully vaccinated. In America, 62 per cent have received at least one dose while more than half are fully vaccinated.

While the more-transmissible Delta variant is responsible for community spread in the United States, contributing to roughly 10 per cent of cases there, it has equally taken hold in Canada: More than a quarter cases reported in Ontario are from that variant, first identified in India. Even still, cases continue to fall.

Canada’s numbers have prompted a broad reopening at home. Montrealers can crowd into the Bell Centre to watch the Habs, and Calgarians will be able to revel in the Stampede: Neither are free to drive and visit their southern neighbours.

On Monday, however, Health Minister Patty Hajdu insisted their approach is “based on science and evidence, and reflects the ongoing science and evidence.” 

Ottawa’s insistence that it is following expert advice rings hollow, as the federal government’s Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel made a suite of recommendations in late May: Few of which are actually being adopted.

The advisory panel recommended a suite of “immediate” measures: That fully vaccinated travellers be allowed to skip the pre-departure test, requiring partially-vaccinated travellers to quarantine only until they receive a negative test, and to reduce the quarantine period for unvaccinated travellers to just seven days. 

They suggested a phased approach for a broader reopening plan.

But, a month later, Ottawa is still ignoring the majority of those recommendations based on the fear, as Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Monday, that “the Delta variant [could be] able to get a foothold in our community in a significant way.” 

Hajdu and her colleagues pointed to the United Kingdom, which is currently seeing a spike in cases tied to the Delta variant—not mentioned by the cabinet ministers, however, is that hospitalizations have not risen in tandem. New data from the National Health Service shows that even one dose of a vaccine offers a 75 per cent chance of preventing hospitalization from the variant.

Hajdu’s office has indicated that the marginal change slated for July 6 could be a test to see whether cases rise—precipitating a quicker reopening pace if things go well. The current border closure is slated to continue until July 21, but a source with knowledge of the situation said it could stretch into August. Liberal Member of Parliament Nathaniel Erskine-Smith says that overly-cautious approach is too gun-shy.

“Governments impose restrictions in keeping with the evidence,” he says. “We also have an expectation that those restrictions would be lifted in keeping with the evidence.”

The most important target for the government appears to be public support. Conversations with federal officials in recent days around the border have consistently turned to a widespread feeling that America is struggling to contain COVID-19 and facing down a troubling vaccine skepticism problem: Effectively playing into widely-held, but not altogether accurate, fears that America could export COVID-19 to Canada.

An Angus-Reid poll from late May found half of Canadians support shutting down all airports and borders entirely. Only about a third of respondents said the border should reopen to non-essential travel.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford hammered Ottawa’s quarantine plans throughout the third wave, even though evidence was clear that community spread was driving the province’s caseloads: Not travel.

Hajdu and other ministers seemed to lean into that anxiety, telling Canadians on Monday that “as COVID rages out of control in other countries it presents a clear and present danger to all countries.”

Erskine-Smith has been a vocal proponent of moving up the border reopening. “You have people separate from their families. You have a Canadian tourism sector that is crushed,” he adds.

Is it a hotdog?

On Monday, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair announced new technology, designed to facilitate fully-vaccinated travellers’ trips across the border.

Starting July 6, he said, those eligible to come into Canada by land or air will need to submit “proof of vaccination electronically through the ArriveCAN app.”

How to accept and verify proof of vaccination has been identified for months as a challenge. 

Yet, according to one source with knowledge of the ArriveCAN app development, said civil servants inside Public Safety Canada only began working on a solution to that problem in April. Work on the add-on did not begin in earnest until May. They rushed to implement “optical character recognition” (OCR) technology that, they hoped, would allow for the government to assess whether the proof of vaccination is, in fact, genuine. It was designed to be an interim measure, as Ottawa forges ahead on a full vaccine passport.

On Monday, Blair insisted that “the application itself can verify the validity of the documentation that’s been submitted.”

OCR is hardly novel—it enables Canadians to deposit cheques in their bank account with only their smartphone, for example—but the technology has limitations, as evidenced by a video demonstration of the app.

The video was shared with Maclean’s on the condition it not be published, as it may identify the source, who was not authorized to speak on the record. The video shows the add-on scanning and pulling information from various vaccine cards: From Ontario, Quebec, the United States and United Kingdom. The add-on checks for four things: The traveller’s name, the vaccine manufacturer, mention of COVID-19, and details on the vaccinator. If it can correctly read all four, it gives a grade of 100 per cent. 

In the demonstration, using sample vaccine records, the add-on scored 75 per cent on a Quebec vaccine receipt (because Quebec uses abbreviations to refer to the manufacturers); a perfect score on an American CDC card and an Ontario receipt; and 50 per cent on a U.K. card. It was also able to confirm that a photo of a hot dog was not, in fact, a proof of vaccine. (A tongue-in-cheek reference to the TV show Silicon Valley.)

Given the add-on can’t properly even read all Canadian vaccine cards, there are concerns about how useful it will really be. “Some provinces’ [vaccine records] are going to fail,” the source said. What’s more: The scan of the vaccine record will only be sent to the Canadian Border Services Agency employee once the traveller arrives at the border.

The add-on has not yet been tested in the real world: The department hopes to implement the update to ArriveCAN in time for the measures on July 5. It can only read Latin characters, the source noted.

That begs the question why the technology is preferable to just handing the agent the actual proof of vaccination. The source with knowledge of the application says CBSA agents will be required to manually check the vaccine regardless.

What’s more, unlike Blair’s assurances, the technology is not able to assess whether these cards are legitimate, or even just crude forgeries. “This is not going to check fraud,” the source said. “You’re not going to be able to make decisions off this.”

The add-on will not be able to read QR codes, which the Quebec government has begun issuing as its proof of vaccination, at least not yet. 

Writ large, the source said the effort to add new layers of bureaucracy and technology isn’t terribly effective. “They’re over-complicating it,” they said.

Erskine-Smith agrees. “If that technology isn’t ready for this, then I kind of shrug my shoulders and say: ‘So what?’” he says. “CBSA officers are more than capable. Let’s get down to the hard work of working with our American partners.”

A source in Public Safety Minister Bill Blair’s office stressed that the border reopening was not contingent on the application being finished. 

Papers, please

The slow pace of the preparation for the reopening bodes ill for a broader effort to get back to normal. The Trudeau government has signalled it intends to adopt some form of a vaccine passport, allowing Canadians to have their vaccines validated abroad, and to allow Canadian border agents to ensure foreigners are vaccinated before vacationing in Canada.

The source, with knowledge of the vaccine passport process, said there had been plans to have a passport completed by Q3 of this year—before the end of September. But, they said, that target remains incredibly unrealistic, as Ottawa has not even issued a request for proposals. It is not even clear which department will spearhead the project. They said it is possible the technology will be online before the end of 2021.

Asked directly on Monday, neither Blair nor Hajdu offered a timeline for when the passport would be ready.

“The vaccine passport is all over the place,” the source said. “There are different competing proposals.”

Transport Canada, is pursuing an app called Travel Pass being pioneered by the International Air Transport Association. That won’t work for Canada’s land borders, however.

Blair’s office confirmed that work on the vaccine passport has been slow going, pointing to uncertainty worldwide on the technology—it was a topic of conversation at the recently-completed G7 leaders meeting in the United Kingdom.

Hajdu’s office indicated that one proposal on the table would be a portal where Canadians can submit their vaccine records to be approved and verified by Health Canada. 

As Maclean’s has reported previously, Canada still lacks a national vaccine registry: Something that will be required for any kind of passport. Without being able to check those provincial registries, Ottawa won’t be able to validate whether Canadians have been, in fact, inoculated. Deloitte Canada was awarded a contract late last year to build the technology in Ottawa to validate those provincial vaccine records, although it’s unclear how far along that project is.

Dana O’Born, Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Council of Canadian Innovators, told Maclean’s that developing technology that can marry all the provincial and territorial registries is “complex” but that “these are issues that should have been addressed with adequate planning in advance of where we find ourselves today.” 

Most other major economies have central vaccine registries. “Canada is behind several G-7 countries,” O’Born added.

Two sources told Maclean’s that IBM Canada and Deloitte Canada are the likely contenders for any kind of vaccine passport project. “There are domestic companies supporting local health units across the country on vaccine related issues—from vaccine booking to identity verification,” O’Born says. Her organization worries that a vaccine passport system “will use technology that does not integrate seamlessly with the Canadian companies on the ground already serving the public.”

Other governments have already figured out some form of validation: New York state residents can show proof of vaccination through the state-run app Excelsior

Erskine-Smith has been publicly critical of his own government’s slow pace on reopening. “I have been vocal on this because I haven’t seen action on this that I would have expected.”

In regular times, some 300,000 people cross the shared land border per day. The last time the porous border was shut, after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, it took about two months before a plan was put together to let citizens of both countries come-and-go. As of today, the border has been closed for 15 months.

Democrat Representative Brian Higgins, who represents the American side of Niagara, has been increasingly frustrated about the prolonged closure. “There’s no other way to say it: another month’s delay is bulls–t,” he tweeted earlier in June.