Conservatives again demand an end to all federal COVID-19 restrictions
Bloc, Liberal and NDP MPs say its irresponsible to scrap health measures with Omicron in circulation
The Conservative Party is renewing its push to get the federal government to lift all remaining COVID-19 restrictions, arguing the country must move on from all pandemic measures after two years of this health crisis.
The party tabled a motion in the House of Commons Thursday — a legislative attempt to force the government to drop measures like the vaccine mandate for federal public servants, transport workers, Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel and the RCMP.
The government has said already that as of April 1, it will have eliminated most travel-related COVID restrictions — such as pre-arrival testing and forced quarantines — for fully vaccinated travellers.
While some restrictions will be loosened or eliminated altogether, the government will still block travel by unvaccinated foreign nationals and require all travellers on planes and trains to wear masks and show proof of vaccination.
The Conservatives say they want all these measures lifted immediately. They argue Canadians have done enough to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
"We can't be expected to live under these restrictions indefinitely," Conservative MP Michael Barrett, the health critic, said during debate in the Commons.
He said Canadians are "aching to get back to normalcy" and Ottawa should follow the lead of the provinces and territories, many of which have already dropped restrictions like mandatory masking rules for public spaces.
"The science shows us it's safe for these restrictions to be lifted. Canadians are noticing Justin Trudeau's indifference. In an Ottawa that is governed by this NDP-Liberal coalition, they're not looking at the medical science, they're looking at the political science that they've used to divide Canadians," Barrett said, referring to the Liberal-NDP agreement to work together on some policy issues over the next three years.
Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman, the party's transport critic and an early supporter of anti-vaccine mandate protests, said it's time to do away with vaccine requirements for cross-border truckers and other transport industry workers because the COVID situation is much more manageable now than it was when these mandates were imposed.
"It's time to give Canadians their lives back," Lantsman said. "It's time to follow the science."
Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who participated in the Ottawa convoy demonstrations earlier this year, compared what he called Canada's "draconian" restrictions on unvaccinated travellers to life in the former Soviet Union, where citizens were sometimes forbidden from travelling internally.
He said restricting air travel to fully vaccinated people is "an unprecedented violation" of charter rights and called the limits "COVID theatre."
"What these mandates are really about is control. It's about saying, 'Do as we say and if you don't you will be unable to travel, you'll lose your job and you'll be vilified and you'll be treated as a second-class citizen.' How wrong, how un-Canadian," Cooper said.
"Canadians don't want to be controlled. They want to take back control of their lives. They want their freedom back and they want it now."
The Conservative motion is expected to fail. The other opposition parties, including the Bloc Québécois and the NDP, said Thursday a sprint to dump all COVID-19 restrictions would be reckless.
NDP MP Don Davies, the party's health critic, said withdrawing vaccine mandates now would be "irresponsible" and "harmful to the health of Canadians."
Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux, the parliamentary secretary to the government House leader, called the Conservative motion "stupid."
"The Conservatives can't click their heels together and wish the pandemic would come to an end," he said, saying the party has become a "far-right" movement that panders to anti-vaccine elements.
'We must not let our guard down' - Duclos
Addressing the Commons on the motion, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the government is aware of how disruptive some of these restrictions have been for Canadians over the past two years — but he suggested that with the highly transmissible Omicron variant and its subvariant, BA.2, in circulation, it's too soon to drop all restrictions now.
"We do want to put COVID behind us but we can't take our success for granted," Duclos said. "COVID-19 is still very much present in Canada and we must be cautious. The epidemiological situation in Canada is improving but it is unstable. We must not let our guard down."
While cautious about dismantling the mandate regime, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said last week that the government is reviewing the policy with an eye to ending it in the coming weeks.
Tam said all federal vaccine mandates are under review now because the science tells us the primary series of the COVID-19 vaccine — the first two doses — offers very little protection against the Omicron variant.
While scientists and vaccine developers initially thought those first two shots would reduce transmission of the COVID-19 virus, the emergence of new variants with different characteristics has upended that thinking, Tam said.
"The game-changer has been an Omicron variant, which is a vaccine-escape variant," Tam said.
WATCH: Dr. Theresa Tam says pandemic travel measures are under review
The first two doses do very little to stop someone from contracting COVID-19, but Tam said they still offer some protection against severe outcomes like hospitalization and death.
Conservatives have pointed to Canada's high vaccination rates as justification for ending the remaining federal restrictions on civil servants and travellers. Duclos said the priority should be bolstering stalled booster dose vaccination rates, which remain stuck at about 60 per cent. "These numbers are not enough," he said.
After weeks of decline, the number of COVID-19 cases being reported each day has increased in some Canadian jurisdictions.
But it's hard to tell just how pervasive Omicron cases are at this point because some provinces and territories have started to dismantle their mass testing sites — while also severely restricting who can access a PCR test to check for positivity.
With testing constrained, Duclos said, the federal government is pushing ahead with a massive procurement effort to buy many more rapid tests.
When Omicron first hit in December, Ottawa had relatively few tests on hand to distribute to the provinces and territories to help Canadians check their status before gathering for Christmas festivities. Duclos said a recently passed bill, Bill C-10, will send $2.5 billion in new funding to Health Canada to keep a steady supply of rapid tests in stock as the country enters a BA.2-driven phase of this pandemic.
Bloc MP Maxime Blanchette-Joncas said the Conservative push to do away with all COVID measures is "excessive" given the spike in COVID-19 cases overseas. He said that while the Bloc supports the government tabling some sort of timeline for ending restrictions, it would be a mistake to simply revert to pre-COVID policy now.
"We've been seeing a major resurgence of COVID cases in Europe — the U.K., Ireland, Greece, Italy ..." he said. "It's downright irresponsible to want to lift all remaining measures at this precise moment."
"It looks like another effort by the Conservatives to politicize the pandemic, vaccination and health measures," he added, saying the party has become "the standard bearer for the most radical elements of the movement opposing health measures."