Ottawa announces suspension of vaccine mandates for domestic travel, federal employees
Mandates have been in effect since Oct. 30, 2021
The federal government has announced a suspension of vaccine mandates for federal employees and for passengers wishing to board a plane or train in Canada.
Federal employees and transportation workers in federally regulated sectors will no longer have to be fully vaccinated as a condition of their work. Those on unpaid administrative leave because of their vaccination status will be invited to return to work.
Starting June 20, vaccines will no longer be required for travellers in Canada. Canadian citizens entering the country from abroad will still be required to meet entry requirements and masks will remain mandatory for those boarding planes or trains in Canada. Visitors to Canada will have to be fully vaccinated to enter the country, or meet the requirements of an exemption.
WATCH | Ottawa deliberately took its time to lift vaccine mandates for domestic travel, says Intergovernmental Affairs Minister
Minister of Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc told reporters that while some mandates are being suspended, the federal government will bring them back if the COVID-19 situation changes for the worse.
"Today's announcement is possible because Canadians have stepped up to protect each other," LeBlanc said. "We are now able to adjust our policy because we have followed consistently the best advice from public health authorities."
LeBlanc said that the federal government does not regret its cautious approach to lifting mandates, adding that Ottawa's policies saved lives.
Vaccine mandates for cruise ship passengers and crews will remain in place, as will adherence to strict public health measures.
The vaccine mandates for travel have been in effect since Oct. 30, 2021. As the mandates were phased in, travellers had a one-month grace period during which they could instead provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test.
Unvaccinated Canadians have always been allowed to return to Canada. But the federal government's website says unvaccinated Canadians have to meet all "pre-entry, arrival, Day-8 testing, ArriveCAN and quarantine requirements"
or face a fine up to $5,000 or criminal prosecution.
The government has been under pressure from opposition parties and industry organizations to relax some public health measures in response to delays and long lineups at airports.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said the changes to vaccine mandates are not a response to congestion at Canada's airports but are motivated by health advice and the effect mandates and vaccination policies have had on previous COVID-19 waves.
"International airports are facing similar challenges," he said. "Heathrow's airport, Amsterdam's airport, Dublin's airports, U.S. airports — this is a phenomenon that we are seeing because of a surge in demand and the labour is trying to catch up to that surge.
"We have a responsibility to act. We are working with airlines, we are working with airports and we are doing everything we can to ease those bottlenecks."
Suspending random testing
Last week, the federal government announced that it was suspending random COVID-19 testing at airports.
At that time, Alghabra said Ottawa was taking other measures to address airport congestion, such as hiring more security screening personnel and adding more customs kiosks at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.
Government officials — including Alghabra, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam — have pointed to mandates as an effective way of getting more Canadians vaccinated.
But experts have questioned the effectiveness of vaccine mandates for travel since the emergence of the more infectious Omicron variant. Tam has said that effective protection against the variant requires a third booster dose.
WATCH: 'Right time' to end vaccine travel mandates, says specialist
So far, the government's definition of "fully vaccinated" remains two doses of an approved COVID-19 vaccine or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch said that while two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine protects against severe illness or death, it's time to end the travel mandates.
"The purpose was to really prevent transmission of COVID-19 in transportation," he said. "Two doses doesn't really provide much in the way of protection against getting the infection and onward transmission of the infection for those who are infected."
Unions welcome policy change
Representatives of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) — which together represent more than 250,000 federal public servants — welcomed the move but said they were frustrated by having to learn of the change through the media.
"Unfortunately, the federal government did not consult with PSAC before making its decision to lift its vaccination policy. Unions should always be consulted on policies that have a major impact on the terms and conditions of employment of our members to protect their health and safety and their rights in the workplace," PSAC said in a media statement.
PIPSC issued a statement saying it welcomed the announcement but — like PSAC — it's concerned about union members who remain on leave without pay and is awaiting details on how they'll be phased back into the workplace.