Looks like we’re heading for another classic Doug Ford reversal

OPINION: Sources say Ontario will soon be getting a vaccine passport. Is anyone really surprised?
By Matt Gurney - Published on Aug 30, 2021
Premier Doug Ford is expected to introduce some kind of vaccine passport this week. (Nathan Denette/CP)

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Late last week, David Akin, of Global News, took a brief break from covering the campaign to reveal that his sources were telling him Ontario would soon be getting a vaccine passport of some kind. 

“Hearing word from Queen’s Park that @FordNation will announce some form of vaccine passport for Ontario next week,” Akin tweeted. “I was in Winnipeg this week and MB’s vax passport is so popular govt ran out of the plastic needed to produce them!”

I had a snort at that. I know I shouldn’t lose sight of the bigger picture — Ontario is getting a vaccine passport?! — but given the Ontario government’s forays into stickers that don’t stick and licence plates that become completely unreadable under direct light, my expectations are low. Even if we can procure the plastic to make the cards, we’ll likely end up with cards that melt at room temperature or are lacquered with white phosphorus, which combusts when exposed to air. If there’s a digital version, it’ll work only on a mobile device running the Windows Phone operating system. 

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After I was done snorting, though, I poked around a bit. Akin’s report seems accurate, near as I can tell, based on chats with the usual “sources close to” various folks in the government. By Friday afternoon, other outlets were confirming his report as well, and that continued through the weekend. This seems all but certain: although there’s been no official word yet, there truly does seem to be a vaccine passport of some kind coming to Ontario — and soon. 

Good! It’s a good idea, and we should have started on this path months ago. I sound like a broken record, but I find myself having to say it again: we have never really gotten out of responding reactively to the pandemic, instead of proactively. 

It was obvious many, many months ago that Canada was going to rapidly vaccinate its population. But at both the federal and provincial levels, there doesn’t seem to have been much thought at all given to some kind of system that would allow vaccination status to be tracked. It could have been a coordinated national system, or there could be options at both levels — a federal passport (literally) to aid international travel and a domestic version to verify vaccination status for employment, education, entertainment, and intra-Canadian travel. 

I’m truly agnostic when it comes to those two options, and I’m also, alas, truly unsurprised that, at both the provincial and federal levels, nothing was done on this until months too late, meaning it’s now being done in a rush. The federal version, for foreign travel, will apparently be ready sometime next year, and the provinces are rolling out their own on their own schedules. British Columbia, Manitoba, and Quebec are in, and Alberta is rolling out something it insists is not a vaccine passport but sounds suspiciously like a vaccine passport. We’ll see what the other provinces come up with. 

The net effect of this, in the end, is that once more, Ontario has done the right thing, after having delayed as long as possible. Premier Doug Ford has been vocal in rejecting the notion of a vaccine passport, on the ridiculous basis that he didn’t want to divide Ontarians. What bunk — Ontarians are already divided, into the vaccinated and the unvaccinated (excluding, of course, those who cannot be, including every child born later than 2009). Public-health leaders have been demanding a passport of some kind for domestic reasons. Business leaders have been, too, saying the economy needed the certainty a passport could help provide. But Ford, as he so often has, refused.

I could note — I am, in fact, noting — that if the reports are true, this is yet another example of a classic Ford reversal. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve noted, on the record and in public, that Ford has a bad habit of staking out a position that he won’t be able to stick to and then trying to defend it way too long. By the time he finally capitulates and does what was always going to happen, he’s done far more political damage to himself than was necessary — and far more than he’d have suffered if he’d just made the ultimate decision the first time. The vaccine passport has got to be perhaps the best example of this: there was no way this government, battered as it is by both plague and criticism alike, was ever going to hold out once it faced any sustained pressure. That it was explicitly denying this just days ago is just the cherry on top. 

So, if true ... why now? What pushed Ford, yet again, past his breaking point?

There are a few possible answers. The first is that some of Ontario’s local public-health officials are apparently getting set to establish regional versions of a passport using their own legal authority. This is obviously more complicated and less efficient than a single provincial version, but it’s better than nothing. The government might feel its hand is being forced by this development. Another long-shot possibility is that Ford blinked because the federal Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau, lobbed a few potshots at Ford’s inaction on the file. But this seems ... a stretch. The Toronto Star has reported that there is a truce in place between Trudeau and Ford, who was benched by the federal Tories during the 2019 campaign, much to Ford’s reported displeasure. With the premier sitting this one out (despite the Liberals having already bumped up against the truce a few times), it seems unlikely that Ford is preparing to reverse himself to spite Trudeau. But it’s possible. 

But the most likely explanation is the one my TVO.org colleague Steve Paikin wrote about last week: the government is nervous. With cases climbing again and a small but meaningful minority of eligible Ontarians still unvaccinated, we could be at risk of further lockdowns or disruptions to normal activities we’d been hoping to resume or continue. Perhaps the spectre of a Delta-driven fourth wave finally got through where nothing else had before. That would be silly, because if that’s what it was, it took way, way too long. But, as stated, that’s the way this government works, isn’t it?

It’s too soon to say what ultimately triggered the collapse; the collapse isn’t even official yet. But it’s not too soon to say I told you so. I called this way back in July. This government can’t quite help itself out of problems of its own making. A faster decision on a vaccine passport wouldn’t just have been good for the Ford government politically —it also would have left us better positioned to face the fourth and future waves. But Ford? Ford never changes.

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