Unvaccinated Canadians can board a plane or passenger train in the country once again.
Ottawa announced Tuesday it is suspending its mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy for air and rail travellers with infections rapidly declining across Canada. It will take effect on June 20.
Since Oct. 30, 2021, those over the age of 12 who were not inoculated were barred from boarding a plane or train, and most of them were no longer allowed to show a negative COVID-19 test as a substitute for vaccination.
Roughly 81 per cent of the entire population is vaccinated against COVID-19, government data shows.
“Today’s announcement is possible because Canadians have stepped up to protect each other. We are now able to adjust our policy because we have followed consistently the best advice from public health authorities,” said Dominic LeBlanc, minister of intergovernmental affairs, infrastructure and communities.
“Our job as a national government has always been to keep Canadians safe. If the situation takes a turn for the worse, we are prepared to bring back the policies necessary to protect Canadians.”
In addition, Ottawa announced it is also pausing its vaccine mandate for employees in the public service, and will no longer require employees in the federally regulated air, rail and marine transportation sectors to be fully vaccinated.
“The suspension of the vaccine mandate was informed by key indicators, including the epidemiological situation and modeling vaccine science and high levels of vaccination against COVID-19 in Canada,” said Omar Alghabra, minister of transport, who added masks will still have to be worn on planes and trains in Canada.
Asked whether Tuesday’s decision will affect vaccine rules for truckers at the Canada-U.S. border, Alghabra said the mandate remains an “important tool” to protect Canadians against the virus.
He said the government remains open to revisiting the policy in the future, but noted the U.S. has a reciprocal policy in place mandating vaccinations for Canadian truckers entering the country.
Alghabra added truckers have “stepped up” to get vaccinated since the policy went into effect in January.
A series of “Freedom Convoy” demonstrations then arose in response to the mandate, including the weeks-long occupation in Ottawa.
Tuesday’s moves comes as the effectiveness of vaccine mandates continue to face questions in what could well be described as the Age of Omicron — the immune-evasive variant that has proved adept at infecting vaccinated people, though the vaccines remain effective at preventing severe illness.
The federal Liberals put the vaccine mandate in place last fall, when the Delta variant remained the dominant strain of the virus and vaccines were much more effective at preventing both transmission and infection than they are against the newer Omicron variants.
News of the policy changes come one day after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced he has tested positive for COVID-19 for the second time in six months. He is fully vaccinated.
Canadian airports are also struggling to keep up with the surge in travellers taking to the skies once again following two and a half years largely homebound amid pandemic public health measures.
Hours-long delays at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport have put COVID-19 measures in the spotlight. And though Ottawa recently suspended randomized COVID-19 testing at customs, the remaining measures have been the subject of criticism from the travel industry.
The United States also dropped random COVID-19 testing last week, citing “the science and data that this requirement is no longer necessary at this time.”
Canadian airlines officials have been quick to put the blame on the federal government, arguing the COVID-19 measures including vaccine mandates and random testing were the cause of delays.
At the same time, airports around the world have faced similar challenges including at London’s Heathrow airport and Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport — one of the busiest in Europe.
The decision to drop the federal travel mandate is not a response to the situation at Canada’s airports, but is “based on science,” LeBlanc said.
“We don’t regret at all being cautious when it comes to a virus that has tragically killed tens of thousands of Canadians and millions of people around the world.
“Acting prudently has saved lives.”
International governments are assessing the best ways to move forward as the pandemic begins to shift into a more endemic phase — one that experts say will likely be marked by re-infection.
“The Omicron variant, in particular, seems to be one that will re-infect people over and over again,” Kelly McNagny, professor of medical genetics at the University of British Columbia’s school for biomedical engineering, told Global News last month.
“It’s a little bit more like the common cold virus that tends to infect the upper airways, which is a place where you tend not to develop strong immunity easily.”
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