The Canadian government is dropping the requirement that domestic and outbound international travellers be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, effective June 20. However, all re-entry requirements will remain in effect, and all passengers will continue to have to wear face masks.
This change will allow unvaccinated Canadians to board planes and trains heading to either domestic or international locations, but they will still be required to follow the current testing and quarantine requirements upon re-entry from international destinations.
Foreign nationals coming to Canada will still be required to be vaccinated in order to enter, though they would be able to depart the country if unvaccinated.
Further, “due to the unique nature of cruise ship travel,” the vaccination requirements for passengers and crew of cruise ships will remain in effect.
The requirement to use the ArriveCAN app to show proof of vaccination upon arrival to avoid a federal quarantine will continue, and all travellers will have to continue to abide by other country’s entry requirements, potentially limiting the destinations unvaccinated travellers will be able to visit. Many countries, including the U.S., continue to require proof of vaccination upon entry.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, Treasury Board President Mona Fortier, and Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos made the announcement on Tuesday, alongside major updates to Canada’s vaccine mandates for transportation workers, and federal employees.
In revealing the updated policies, government says the mandates have been effective through the thick of the pandemic, but were never meant to be permanent. Though, should case counts climb again, federal officials say they won’t hesitate to reinstate any suspended COVID-19 travel restrictions.
The Canadian government says this move is coming now “following a successful vaccination campaign.” Nearly 90 per cent of eligible Canadians are vaccinated against COVID-19.
“The decision today is not based on something that we woke up yesterday or this morning, and decided to do. We’ve done our homework… What got us [to] today was a period of discussions, of consultations, of looking at the big picture, of preparing ourselves for a potential wave in the fall, but [also] the current situation today,” Alghabra said. “It’s clear that the COVID situation is not the same now as it was last fall when we implemented the vaccine mandate.”
The federal mandates requiring all passengers on planes or trains to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before boarding were first promised by the Liberals during the last federal election, and came into effect in October 2021.
In recent months, pressure has been mounting for the government to lift the travel vaccination requirements from opposition politicians and the travel industry, citing the significant strains and delays at Canadian airports, as well as the easing provincial public health rules.
Throughout these calls, the Liberals have defended the mandates, repeatedly referring to the need to follow the science and advice of public health officials.
On Tuesday, ministers said that the federal government’s “top priority” remains keeping Canadians safe, and that this decision is not related to easing the strain at Canadian airports, which they attribute to “staffing shortages.”
Rather, the ministers cited the virus’ evolution, the current epidemiological and modelling projections, and the high vaccination rate in Canada as key factors in lifting the mandates now.
With the policy change likely prompting even more of an influx in travellers descending on Canadian airports, the transport minister faced several questions about whether the government is equipped to adequately handle the added crowds. He said work continues with the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) to “increase efficiencies.”
Last week the government halted its mandatory random testing of vaccinated travellers at airports, but maintained the requirement for any unvaccinated travellers to be swabbed.
In order to be considered fully vaccinated under the federal policy, people have had to show proof of a full vaccination series, but not a booster dose, despite calls from public health officials to make a third dose part of the requirement to better protect against severe illness and to shore-up waning immunity.
On Tuesday, Duclos said the Omicron variant has made it evident that two doses “are no longer enough,” though the government is not going beyond encouraging those who have not yet received a booster dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to do so.
“Our rate of boosters in Canada is too low. It’s lower than all other G7 countries, and that is not good. However, we know we can do better… and that’s [what] we’re going to do also in the next weeks and months with all provinces and territories, so that we are better prepared and sufficiently prepared for what… may be coming in the fall.”
Reacting to the news, the National Airlines Council of Canada—which represents Canada’s largest carriers, including Air Canada and WestJet—said it views the move as a “major milestone for the aviation sector, the tourism industry, and for Canadian travellers,” but said it is not enough to resolve the problems at airports.
The Council is calling for immediate changes to ArriveCAN to eliminate duplicative health checks, end the mandate for inbound international travellers, and a commitment to make permanent the recent suspensions of mandates and random testing.
“The government’s decision to suspend the national vaccine mandate for air travel and transportation employees is a positive step, one that will simplify many aspects of travel and bring Canada closer to the emerging standard currently in place around the world. Airlines will work diligently to implement these changes,” said the Council’s interim president and CEO Suzanne Acton-Gervais in a statement.
Conservative transport critic Melissa Lantsman said that while the government has “finally” moved to end travel mandates, she said a suspension is not the same as a full elimination. “Some vaccine mandates is not all vaccine mandates. Still NO science we’ve seen to justify any mandates,” she tweeted.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says his team was consulted about the decision to remove these mandates before the announcement was made, given the NDP are in a confidence and supply deal with the Liberals.
“We said it’s a very important factor in any decision, that we are following best evidence, and that we are letting Canadians know why certain orders are in place… And if there is no longer evidence we should no longer continue with a [public health] order,” Singh said. “We supported that decision.”
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