Globe editorial: Is it time to end Canada’s last remaining COVID travel restrictions? – The Globe and Mail

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A passenger checks in at Toronto’s Pearson Airport on Oct. 29, 2021.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Last week, Quebec became the final province to drop its indoor mask mandate. Across the country, masks are now generally only required on mass transit and in hospitals. Bars, restaurants, grocery stores, gyms and sports arenas are all mask-optional zones. Gone, too, are provincial proof-of-vaccination mandates.

In downtown Toronto last Saturday night, bars and restaurants were packed with (mostly) young, (mostly) unmasked people. In Toronto, Edmonton and Calgary, tens of thousands of people filled NHL arenas, and thousands more cheered (or grieved) together in shoulder-to-shoulder crowds outside the venues.

The widespread public-health restrictions once imposed by the provinces are behind us, for now. But some critical ones imposed by the federal government remain in place.

They include Ottawa’s ban on domestic air and rail travel for people who are unvaccinated, the requirement to be vaccinated to board an international flight, and random testing rules for vaccinated passengers returning to Canada.

This page has supported many of the pandemic restrictions imposed by Ottawa and the provinces since 2020. Most were justifiable and necessary from a public-health perspective, with benefits that generally outweighed the downsides.

We repeatedly urged governments to act early, rather than waiting while a wave grew too big to handle, and we were critical of governments that lifted restrictions in the face of evidence – remember Alberta’s “best summer ever” in 2021?

The logic behind vaccine mandates for travellers no longer holds

How sincere is Canada’s commitment to COVID-19 vaccine equity?

We questioned many restrictions, too, such as Ontario’s quickly withdrawn plan to have police randomly stop drivers in 2020, or when the Trudeau government hit cross-border truckers with a vaccine mandate in January, a move that didn’t have an obvious public-health upside.

But we supported prudent, measured public-health restrictions. So did the majority of Canadians. In the fog of the pandemic war, mistakes were made, such as keeping schools in some provinces shuttered far too long. But many other impositions were the least bad options, under the circumstances.

And they worked. Last week, the number of COVID-related deaths in Canada reached 40,000. It’s a terrible toll. But the same week, the United States reached one million, a death rate three times higher. Government and individual action made the difference – notably Canada’s vaccination rate, which is among the highest in the world.

But Canadians’ acceptance of public-health restrictions was always dependent on the assumption that what would be asked of them would go on no longer than necessary, and would be based on the best science. As things change, policy would evolve.

Ottawa last did that on April 1, when it lifted the requirement for vaccinated travellers returning to Canada to get tested before boarding their flight home. But since then, nothing about Canada’s travel rules has changed.

Ottawa continues to ban unvaccinated people from domestic plane and train travel, and it needs to explain why. Is it an effort to nudge those who’ve never had a shot into finally taking the plunge? We supported the policy, in part for that reason. But Canada’s currently very low rate of first-dose uptake strongly suggests this nudge isn’t working.

Is it a measure to stop the spread of COVID-19? If so, it doesn’t jibe with the fact that over 19,000 people, vaccinated and otherwise, will cram into the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary on Wednesday to watch the Battle of Alberta.

As for the requirement to prove you are vaccinated to board an international flight, it’s a moot point in the sense that most countries won’t let you off the plane at the other end without the same proof.

But if the need to provide vaccination proof at airports for every departure and arrival, along with the federal government’s random onsite testing for returning Canadians, are indeed the reason airports are currently clogged – as airport operators maintain – then Ottawa should explain the rationale for keeping those rules in place.

There may well be one. We are certainly in favour of continuing to require that foreign visitors be vaccinated to fly to Canada, in order to minimize the risk of them becoming a burden on our health system.

But right now there is an obvious gap between Ottawa’s rules and the provinces’ rules. To maintain Canadians’ ongoing support for and confidence in public health, Ottawa needs to explain why that is.

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