Canada is suspending its COVID-19 vaccination requirement for domestic travellers, transportation workers and federal employees, citing evolving science and high vaccination rates.
Beginning June 20, Canadians boarding airplanes and trains will no longer be required to show proof of vaccination. However, the federal government is leaving in place existing vaccination requirements for foreign nationals, as well as quarantine and testing requirements for unvaccinated Canadians returning home.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, Treasury Board President Mona Fortier and Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos made the announcement on Tuesday.
“We’ve seen our measures have slowed down several COVID peaks and have given our health care system early warnings to adjust and respond as the COVID situation evolves,” Mr. Alghabra said. “As we learn more about this virus, we have been adjusting our measures. Many of these measures have been lifted. And it’s clear that the COVID situation is not the same now as it was last fall when we implemented the vaccine mandate.”
Vaccination requirements will also remain in place for cruise ship passengers and crews owing to the unique nature of cruise ship travel, Mr. Alghabra said. Masking will still be enforced on federally regulated planes, trains and ships.
Mr. LeBlanc said the federal government is prepared to bring the mandate back should it feel it necessary, but did not provide any details under what circumstances it would consider doing so.
“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,” he said.
The arrival of the highly transmissible Omicron variant last fall forced governments to rethink its COVID-19 measures. A study published in April in the New England Journal of Medicine found that vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic disease caused by the Omicron variant is substantially lower than with the Delta variant, and that very limited vaccine effects remained 20 weeks after the second dose of any vaccine. Booster doses resulted in a substantial increase in protection against mild infection; however, that also began to wane after a few months.
Mr. Duclos said while two doses still offer considerable protection from severe disease and death, it is not enough to protect against infection and transmission.
“That is why we are transitioning now to an up-to-date vaccination definition, what it means to be adequately protected against COVID-19,” he said.
The Health Minister said that his government will spend the coming weeks working with provinces and territories to increase the rate of booster doses in Canada, which he said is lower than that of all other G7 countries. Asked if the government might add third doses to vaccination requirements, Mr. Duclos said it is considering all options.
The mandate suspension follows the government’s move on Sunday to temporarily stop subjecting vaccinated travellers to random COVID-19 tests. Unvaccinated travellers arriving from outside Canada will still be required to take a test. Effective July 1, the random and mandatory re-entry tests will be conducted outside of airports.
The federal Conservatives have been calling for an end to the mandates for months. Last week, The Globe reported that the majority of Liberal MPs also wanted the domestic travel vaccine mandates lifted because they didn’t believe there was still a scientific rationale for them.
Business and tourism groups have also advocated for the government to end the mandates, which they said were contributing to snarled travel at the country’s busiest airports. Airports, airlines and the travel industry say the COVID-19 rules are also exacerbating an employee shortage at a time when air travel is rebounding, leading to long delays at airport customs, baggage and security checkpoints.
Three public-sector unions have also filed grievances against the mandate, saying it was no longer warranted.
Mark Holland, the Liberal House leader, told reporters in Ottawa the government has resisted calls to drop the vaccine mandates because it wanted to act “prudently.” He pointed to the resurgent and unpredictable nature of new variants that have prolonged the pandemic and kept health measures in place.
Jan De Silva, president of the Toronto Region Board of Trade, welcomed the news but said the businesses she represents continue to call for lasting improvements in the way Toronto Pearson Airport processes travellers. Even before the pandemic, the times to get through security checks and customs were longer than at some other international airports, including London Heathrow and Hong Kong, she said. Both of these airports have spent money on systems that allow people to be checked more quickly, including trusted traveller programs. “It’s technology, it’s staffing, it’s attention to the process flow,” Ms. De Silva said by phone.
Judith Coates, owner of Wired For Travel and co-founder of the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors, said dropping the Canadian vaccine mandate will be good for the industry, which was devastated by more than two years of the pandemic. Air travel all but halted amid closed borders and travel bans.
“I’ve had a lot of clients who were never vaccinated reach out to me and ask, ‘Have you heard about the vaccines?’” Ms. Coates said from Orillia, Ont.
The interim head of the Canadian Airports Council, Monette Pasher, said the government’s move should alleviate the shortage of federally regulated employees who work at airports in security, customs and airline services. At Toronto Pearson alone, Ms. Pasher estimates, hundreds of employees could not work because they refused to get vaccinated, contributing to the bottlenecks that have gripped Canada’s largest airport in recent months.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.