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Justin Trudeau bends to health advice, public pressure and politics as pandemic restrictions wind down


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Justin Trudeau bends to health advice, public pressure and politics as pandemic restrictions wind down

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went before cameras to present his government’s emergency response Monday — not to the long-awaited end of federal border and travel restrictions, but to last weekend’s hurricane.

Instead, it was left to cabinet ministers to announce the end of pandemic measures that had become increasingly unjustifiable in the eyes of the tourism and travel industry, border mayors, the business community and many medical experts.

At the unanimous recommendation of a cabinet committee on COVID-19, Trudeau agreed to let cabinet pandemic orders expire on Sept. 30, a decision that was as much politically and economically called for as it was based on public health data.

Trudeau all but admitted as much when he later acknowledged “there was a sense that these border measures were no longer effective, or no longer justified in the circumstance that we’re in right now.”

That means as of Oct. 1, Ottawa will end all COVID-19 border requirements for travellers entering Canada: No more mandatory random testing of vaccinated citizens returning to the country. No more vaccination mandate for foreign nationals. An end to testing and quarantine requirements for unvaccinated Canadians.

It also means travellers entering Canada no longer need to submit proof of vaccination status via the ArriveCAN app (although it remains an option for travellers to quickly upload customs declaration information).

The federal government is also dropping masking requirements on federally regulated transportation — airlines, trains and cruise ships — although it “strongly” encourages travellers to keep using masks.

In the view of some infectious disease specialists, it’s well past time.

Dr. Zain Chagla of McMaster University was one of four specialists who analyzed the medical literature, compared Canada’s response to other countries, and concluded “the restrictions introduced during the Omicron wave were largely ineffective and should not be maintained or reintroduced.”

In a report for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Tourism Association released Friday, they said “what made sense at the beginning of the pandemic, no longer makes sense today” with the availability of therapeutic treatments, mass vaccination and community wastewater testing.

At best, their report said, travel restrictions only ever delayed the arrival of new variants of concern by a few days, and testing had resulted in “many false negatives and positives, caused significant economic and mental hardship, and has not been proven to prevent the virus and variants globally. PCR testing also does not distinguish between an acute infection or a residual, non-infectious traveller.”

On top of that, they said, “virtually all European and American countries have removed testing requirements for arriving international travellers at this point in time, and more than 80 countries have removed all COVID-19 restrictions.”

On Monday, the tourism industry and the Chamber of Commerce — and the Conservatives — cheered the coming end of the restrictions.

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That report, however, was not the turning point. It merely reinforced what a cabinet committee had already concluded.

Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos cited “data accumulated over the last few weeks” as the rationale for ending restrictions now, but argued they had worked.

Duclos cited a Canadian Medical Association Journal report showing Canada had done better than 10 peer countries on the number of people infected, the number who died from COVID-19 and total excess deaths. That report said Canada experienced some of the most restrictive public health measures — most of which were ordered by provincial authorities.

What Duclos did not mention was that same report said Canada’s economy showed “similar growth in inflation and public indebtedness, but weaker gross domestic product growth than other countries.” That’s a big problem.

Duclos suggested restrictions could be reimposed later. Canadian cases are on the uptick again, even though death rates are declining and ICU rates remain low for now. But both Duclos and Trudeau said updated vaccines are the best protection for individuals, and for a strained health-care system.

Asked about the political challenge of reimposing restrictions down the road, or enforcing current mandates — an approach that is coercive and, at one point, was seen as absolutely necessary to drive up vaccination rates — Trudeau stuck largely to talking points.

The prime minister almost admitted it’s better for social cohesion and public health compliance to let people “make their own choices,” but didn’t finish the thought, opting instead to signal it will be up to provincial or local health authorities to impose any new restrictions as necessary.

“We just know that allowing people to make their own choices on whether they’re — how they’re feeling, whether they’re at risk, what they’re choosing to do to keep safe,” he said.

Yet Duclos — if not Trudeau — was more transparent about the fact that data shows domestic transmission is the big driver of infection, not international travellers, and that border and travel measures do nothing to address that.

Duclos also acknowledged that the public buy-in was waning, saying the mood has turned against workers trying to enforce mandates.

“We’re moving away from a coercitive (sic) environment, which has created pressures and difficulties for air travellers and air workers, in particular,” Duclos said. He suggested “most” travellers will continue to wear masks in closed spaces, “but there will be some travellers who will choose not to do so and that’s all right.”

But the justification to roll back those measures was there since the spring, and had “started to become overwhelming,” Chagla said. “And I think as we start seeing partner countries really dropping these restrictions, it’s getting very hard to kind of continue to justify.

“A lot of countries are waking up to kind of say, this is probably not where we want to invest your time and efforts and monetary resources in that sense.”

Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc

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