Ottawa will temporarily suspend its random COVID-19 testing for air passengers, but has left its domestic travel vaccine mandate in place, even as sources say most Liberal MPs agree with the Conservative position to scrap it.
On Friday, the federal government announced that it would stop mandating random testing of fully vaccinated travellers effective Saturday. The suspension will be in place until July 1, when the random testing will resume but outside of airports.
Testing of unvaccinated travellers will continue but move off site at the end of the month.
The changes are the latest attempt by the federal government to ease the bottlenecks at airports, particularly Toronto’s Pearson, that are leading to hours-long waits, missed connections and cancelled flights. Ottawa has also hired more security screening officers and is installing more customs kiosks.
The aviation industry and Official Opposition Conservatives have blamed airport chaos in part on the federal COVID-19 rules and are calling for an end to testing policies and vaccine mandates (which apply to international and domestic travellers and airport staff). The delays are also being fuelled by a staffing crunch, with airlines and security agencies scrambling to hire staff amid a surge in travellers.
Morgan Bell, a spokeswoman for Calgary-based WestJet Airlines, called the random-testing suspension a “step in the right direction,” but added that the airline wants all of the pandemic rules removed.
Canada had already dropped its mandatory prearrival testing requirement, but unlike the United States and many other countries, Canada requires domestic travellers by air and rail to be vaccinated.
The United States on Sunday will drop the requirement for prearrival COVID-19 tests for people arriving by airplane. The move is expected to boost the volume of visitors to the U.S., and also reduce the delays travellers face departing for the U.S. from Canadian airports.
Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman, who has been pushing for an end to the mandates since February, said moving the random testing off-site solves one problem but creates another by adding a different layer of complexity for travellers. She said the government has not shared data to justify the mandates, which she calls “punitive.” Most other jurisdictions in Canada have dropped their vaccine mandates.
A Government of Canada web page on evidence of COVID-19 transmission in flight, last updated in November, cited one study that found that vaccinated passengers were 74 per cent less likely to be infected compared with those who are not vaccinated. The impact of vaccine mandates on in-flight transmission was not contained in any study and most research occurred prior to widespread vaccination rollout, the site said.
Last week, Ms. Lantsman tabled a motion in the House calling on the federal government to “immediately revert to prepandemic rules.” The motion was supported by Conservatives and Liberal MP Joël Lightbound but defeated by all other Liberal MPs, and all NDP, Bloc Québécois and Green MPs who voted.
Three sources in the Liberal caucus said many of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s MPs want the government to end the domestic travel vaccine mandate. That rule bars unvaccinated people from boarding planes or trains for trips within the country. Some MPs also want the vaccine mandate for international air travel lifted, but sources said there is less agreement on that policy.
The Globe and Mail is not identifying the sources because they were not permitted to reveal the discussions in the party’s closed-door meetings.
Last month, Ottawa extended its vaccine mandates until the end of June. Those mandates also cover federal civil servants and employees in the federally regulated transportation sector, including aviation and rail. Three major public-sector unions have filed grievances against the mandates, saying they are no longer warranted when they are being lifted by other governments.
Liberals MPs are hearing from vaccinated and unvaccinated constituents alike who say the mandates should be lifted. As other governments lift their restrictions, the contradictions are becoming more and more obvious, said Ontario Liberal MP Michael Coteau.
He said he’s hearing consistently from constituents who question the value of a vaccine mandate for domestic air and rail travel when they can spend as much or more time in bars or cinemas with no rules at all.
“People are now seeing conflicting policy,” he said, “that’s frustrating them and they need clarity.”
New Brunswick MP Wayne Long said the domestic vaccine travel mandate helped to get more people vaccinated but it’s time for it to be lifted. The unvaccinated “can’t continue to be punished,” he said, adding that there’s a lack of scientific evidence to justify the domestic mandates.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra has been under immense pressure to find a fix to the airport bottlenecks. This week, he said Ottawa is “erring on the side of public safety” and that it continues to assess the measure.
Cabinet is weighing several options for the different vaccine mandates, but punted a final decision until after the Ontario election, according to three other sources, with knowledge of the talks.
Mr. Trudeau first opposed vaccine mandates but changed his mind just before last summer’s federal election, where the sweeping mandates were a central part of his re-election campaign.
On Friday, Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam declined to disclose the advice she is giving the government on the continued value of the vaccine mandates, but said there is a lot of different data to consider. Since March, she has said that the government has been evaluating all of the federal vaccine mandates.
Studies show COVID-19 vaccines are effective at avoiding severe illness, but that a booster dose provides much more protection against the Omicron variant, although it wanes after a few months.
Nathalie Grandvaux, a researcher at the Centre de recherche du CHUM and a specialist in viral infections, noted that vaccines protect against severe outcomes and can decrease the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission and infection, depending on when a person was vaccinated.
“I think the vaccine mandate is still helping, but if I had to choose what we need to keep at this moment, and I have to give something away, I would keep the mask mandate and remove the vaccine mandate,” Dr. Grandvaux said. But she said it’s difficult to say definitively, in part because the arrival of a new variant could change the assessment.
Andrew Simor, an infectious-disease specialist and microbiologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and the University of Toronto, said a dearth of research on the impact of vaccine mandates on in-flight transmission means that decisions about them are based on personal judgments rather than science. He noted though that the definition of “fully vaccinated” being two doses of an approved vaccine is outdated.
With a report from Eric Atkins
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