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The inside story of why Justin Trudeau suddenly ended vaccine mandates for travellers


The inside story of why Justin Trudeau suddenly ended vaccine mandates for travellers

OTTAWA—“Science” — not politics or airport delays — is the reason the Liberal government gave for why it has finally halted — or “suspended” — federal vaccine mandates starting next Monday.

Yet if politics is the art of the possible, politics were definitely in play.

Some Liberal MPs say caucus pressure played a role. Cabinet sources say there were different opinions about how fast to move, while officials acknowledged that Ottawa and the provinces need to use more persuasive, not coercive, means to increase vaccination rates in Canada before the fall and a potential seventh wave.

In the end, at a news conference Monday four cabinet ministers outlined the new rules, and insisted the decisions were grounded in public health advice from inside and outside government.

As of June 20 Ottawa is scrapping requirements to be “fully vaccinated” for air passengers on domestic or outbound international flights, for rail travellers, and federal bureaucrats and federally-regulated workers like airline employees or those who process passports.

It does not affect a vaccination mandate that continues to apply inside the House of Commons — that is still the subject of heated discussion amongst the parties, with some Conservative MPs remaining ineligible to enter the chamber.

Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos pointed to a better public health picture across Canada as justifying the changes to travel and federal workplace rules at this time.

The sixth wave of the pandemic in Canada is in clear decline with fewer infections, hospitalizations and patients in intensive care than just weeks ago. He warned if things worsen in the fall, the mandates could be revived.

Duclos characterized the decision to drop vaccine mandates as a “suspension” and insisted that a third or fourth dose of vaccinations are the best protection against getting sick or dying.

A senior government official, speaking on a background-only basis, conceded the public’s mood around vaccination mandates and perceived personal risk has shifted and an even tougher mandate — one that required three doses — immediately “would not get us ready for the fall” when infections could rise again, especially as vaccines are already being tweaked for new variants and by the end of the summer, boosters could be very different.

The insider said “behavioural science” also points toward easing restrictions now: “We want people to get in position where they want to get a third dose and not have it become a national resentment.”

The national vaccination campaign in its early days was a success, with some 90 per cent of Canadians aged over five getting a first dose. More than 82 per cent of the broader Canadian population has received two doses. Of the eligible population (age five and over) that number is 86.4 per cent.

But only 49 per cent of the overall population is vaccinated with a third dose.

Still, a senior cabinet minister said that inside government there was a recognition that “it was time to move on” as Ottawa reserves the option to change its mind in the fall if the situation deteriorates.

Vaccination mandates remain for cruise ship crews and passengers because they “are in close contact with each other for an extended period of time,” said Transport Minister Omar Alghabra.

There are no changes for travellers entering Canada, and no changes to masking mandates on federally-regulated planes and trains.

Duclos and Alghabra each said the changes announced Tuesday were “guided by science” that involved looking “at all the options and all the data that we have.”

But the federal government and top public health officials have struggled to convey that science to Canadians in recent months, with the chief public health officer stating last week that dropping mandates and other measures involved a “complex decision-making process.”


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“I’m not going to give you the number of cases or the number of hospitalizations a day, because that’s really quite complicated,” Dr. Theresa Tam said, adding that such decisions would need to factor in vaccine coverage rates and mandatory random testing — a measure Ottawa scrapped in airports on Saturday.

Indeed, ministers grappled with contradictory messaging Tuesday on several fronts.

Duclos said mask mandates on planes and trains protect people “in environments where there is limited space and close contact”, even as provinces have begun axing the same measure on public transit.

What’s more, the federal government opted not to update the definition of a fully-vaccinated person to reflect three or more doses, despite repeated assertions that two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine no longer provides adequate protection in the wake of the Omicron variant.

And while ministers cited unseen “data” as the reason behind why vaccine mandates for Canadian travellers could be dropped, Ottawa is still requiring all foreign nationals entering the country to be “fully vaccinated” — with two doses.

Toronto Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith said a lack of transparency from officials in the last six months on the science behind mandates led to weak public support for continuing the measure.

“Unquestionably, there was inertia,” he said.

He added that Tuesday’s announcement was made with the recognition that “while the mandates were important when they were first introduced, they don’t serve the same usefulness today, and (the government) has listened to caucus.”

As for the government’s warning that mandates could be brought back in the event of a serious fall wave, Liberal MP Chris Bittle said such a move would likely be unpopular.

“It’s always going to be a challenge,” he said, adding that removing mandates doesn’t mean “mission accomplished, COVID’s over.”

Here’s what does not change:

  • At this time, foreign nationals — with limited exceptions — must be fully vaccinated to enter Canada.
  • Canadian citizens and Canadian permanent residents returning from international destinations who do not qualify for the fully vaccinated traveller exemption continue to be required to provide a valid pre-entry test result, remain subject to Day 1 and Day 8 molecular testing, and quarantine for 14 days.
  • All travellers entering Canada are required to input their mandatory information in ArriveCAN within 72 hours before their arrival in Canada.
  • Unvaccinated Canadian truck drivers, as well as crew on planes and trains, entering Canada continue to be required to meet requirements for pre-entry, arrival, and Day 8 testing, as well as quarantine requirements.
  • Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated foreign national truck drivers coming to Canada from the United States by land will be directed back to the United States.

However, with labour shortages continuing to plague all kinds of sectors, including airport security, airline attendants and baggage handlers, the move is expected to add to the chaos at some airports as up to 7 million more people are now eligible to travel.

Ottawa has so far hired 865 additional screening officers since April in an attempt to contend with the airport delays.

The changes do not affect whether destination countries require international travellers to be vaccinated, and the ministers urged Canadians to be aware of what the rules are at their arrival points.

“Many countries around the world including the U.S. continue to require a proof of vaccination upon entering their country,” Alghabra said.

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

Raisa Patel is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @R_SPatel

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