Looks like travel restrictions were political all along
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Looks like travel restrictions were political all along

The federal government announced on Tuesday June 14 that COVID-related travel restrictions in place since Oct. 30, 2021 will be ending. Specifically, the government is ending the requirement to show proof of vaccination for domestic travel on planes and trains, for outbound international travel, and ending the vaccine mandate for transport workers and federal government employees.

The government is maintaining the vaccine requirement for foreign nationals entering Canada, keeping the ArriveCan App, and maintaining the mask mandate on planes.

The announcement comes after weeks of mounting pressure on the government to end COVID restrictions from the industry, from opposition politicians, and from legal groups. The Canadian Airports Council and other industry groups have called for an end to vaccine mandates for passengers. WestJet’s CEO called for an end to the mandates and border restrictions.

Legal groups like the Canadian Constitution Foundation have for months raised concerns about how the policy infringes the rights of Canadians to move freely within and leave their own country.

Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman brought a motion on May 30 to remove COVID restrictions, including random testing and proof of vaccination. The motion was defeated, voted against by the government and the NDP. Yet two weeks later the government is basically doing precisely what they voted against.

Has the science changed? There’s no way to know, since the government never revealed any of the evidence these mandates were based on. Or how it differed from the science relied on by every provincial government in the country that dropped vaccine passport policies.

Why is the science different on an airplane than it is in a movie theatre, gym, or stadium? During the press conference announcing the change, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra cited high vaccine rates, lower case rates, and lower hospitalization rates. These benchmarks have not changed significantly since the COVID restrictions were renewed just two weeks ago.

What has changed though, is the politics. Canadian travel volumes have returned to about 70% of normal volumes, and as the pandemic wanes and summer holidays begin that volume is expected to increase. Meanwhile, the scenes at many Canadian airports are chaotic and have become an international embarrassment, with viral videos of long lines, hundreds of cancelled flights, and chaotic baggage scenes.

After sports podcaster Ryan Whitney went viral with his video about being stuck at the airport with multiple cancelled flights and long delays, Barstool Sports started marketing a “Pearson Airport Sucks” T-shirt.

This is a politically unsustainable situation for the government. The mandates were brought in right before the fall federal election in what seemed like as a political wedge issue. The wedge appeared effective at the time, as the policy was popular. An Ipsos poll showed that in August 2021, 82% of Canadians supported the requirement of proof of vaccination for flying on an airplane or taking a train internationally or interprovincially.

While there has not been a wide poll on the current popularity of travel restrictions, we can assume the government has conducted their own internal polling. The lobbying by industry, opposition, legal groups, and the current media coverage of chaotic travel scenes by the media and on social media have created political pressure on the government to drop restrictions.

This seems to be the perfect bookend. The policy was introduced for political gain, and it only makes sense that it ends once it becomes a political liability.

The problem is that the government made clear in their announcement that they would not hesitate to bring back restrictions in the fall “if required.” But the ministers of transportation, health and intergovernmental affairs were unable to provide any clear benchmarks that would justify that requirement.

Most concerning was the repeated insistence by Health Minister Duclos that there is a need to “transition” from two doses to three, that the government considered a three dose mandate, and that a three dose mandate remains on the table for the fall.

Such a policy would have an unjustified negative impact on millions of Canadians and their ability to travel within or leave their own country and should be rejected. If it isn’t, legal groups like the Canadian Constitution Foundation will be prepared to litigate.

This article was originally published in the Toronto Sun.