Vaccine mandate for travel under scrutiny as much of the world reopens

·5 min read

Travel businesses and public health experts are questioning the prudence of Canada's continued vaccination mandate on airplanes and at the border, suggesting the policy may be out of step with the science and global tourism trends.

The federal government announced Tuesday that COVID-19 travel restrictions will remain in place at least until the end of the month, including the requirement that anyone coming into Canada or boarding a plane or train inside the country be vaccinated.

The extension of the measures was met with pushback from industry groups contending that the public health requirements could hamstring Canadian tourism during the important summer season.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said Tuesday that the government is reviewing the evidence and consulting with experts and other jurisdictions to guide its decisions around the vaccine requirements for travel.

"There's obviously a discussion to strike the right balance, to ensure that we maintain our eye on public health but also the fluidity of our economy,'' Alghabra said on his way into a cabinet meeting.

Travellers aged 12 and older must show proof that they are fully vaccinated to board domestic or international flights departing from most Canadian airports. The requirements also apply to trains and cruise ships.

As of April, fully vaccinated travellers can get into Canada without a pre-entry COVID-19 test, but may be subject to a random test upon arrival, and have to answer screening questions on the ArriveCan app. Pre-entry tests are still required for partially vaccinated or unvaccinated people over the age of 12 who are eligible to travel to Canada. Travellers who don't meet the vaccine requirements may be turned away at the border, or required to quarantine for 14 days or until their departure.

Public health officials have said repeatedly since the Omicron variant hit in late 2021 that the virus was more adept at transmitting between vaccinated people than its predecessors.

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam has said that cabinet should re-evaluate the measure given that vaccines now provide less protection against transmission, and the government says those re-evaluations happen on an ongoing basis.

Vaccine mandates made sense when it came to curbing the spread of earlier COVID-19 variants, but as the virus has evolved, these policies have outworn their purpose, said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton.

"(It) doesn't necessarily keep any benefits to these rules, only causing harm," said Chagla, an associate professor at McMaster University.

To qualify as fully vaccinated, travellers must show proof that they have received at least two doses of a vaccine series (or at least one dose of the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine).

While research shows that COVID-19 vaccines provide significant protection against severe illness, Chagla said emerging evidence suggests that two doses and a booster are less than 15 per cent effective at preventing Omicron infection.

Unvaccinated people have also increasingly acquired some degree of immunity to the virus through infection, Chagla noted, suggesting that they don't pose a substantially higher risk of spreading the virus than the general population.

A growing number of jurisdictions within Canada and abroad have dropped vaccine requirements for public venues and travel, but the vaccine mandate for federally regulated transportation continues to restrict unvaccinated people's ability to see their loved ones or pursue professional opportunities, said Chagla.

"As much as we try to stigmatize people that are unvaccinated, there are consequences to them in their lives that we really do have to think about long-term," he said. "When the risk of infection is pretty similar amongst most groups, I really think we do have to include everyone in the ability to travel and make it a part of their lives."

Meanwhile, members of Canada's travel industry say continued restrictions could hamper the sector's comeback.

Marty Firestone, president of Toronto-based insurance broker Travel Secure, said he's heard from many clients who are frustrated with the vaccine requirements. Most have been restricted to road trips or staycations.

But with some restrictions still in place, Firestone said Canada can't fully capitalize on roughly two years of pent-up pandemic wanderlust.

"When all of these things are removed, ultimately then we'll be back to somewhat of the new normal," he said. "Right now, we aren't even close."

Richard Vanderlubbe, the president of Trip Central, a travel agency with more than two dozen offices across Canada, said it's possible that dropping vaccine requirements could prove to be a deterrent for travellers worried about COVID-19, but he'd need to do some market research to determine if that's the case.

He is confident, however, that Canada is among the most cautious countries in the world when it comes to COVID-19 travel rules, and he doesn't see that changing any time soon.

Agents had to navigate some tense phone calls when they first informed customers about the vaccine requirements for travel, but that anger has since faded into resignation, said Vanderlubbe.

While the travel business is booming compared to the doldrums of COVID-19 lockdowns, Vanderlubbe said hypervigilance without a clear public health justification could set Canada behind as much of the world welcomes back tourists. Last month, Austria, Belgium and Vietnam joined the growing list of countries that have relaxed border restrictions.

"All of us in the travel business want our customers to be satisfied, and we want as many people on planes as possible," said Vanderlubbe. "If there's any risk health-wise, why is Canada is the only country in the world doing this? That's that's my question."

-With files from Laura Osman in Ottawa

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2022.

The Canadian Press

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