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Jravel companies and public health experts question the caution of Canada’s continued vaccination mandate on planes and at the border, suggesting the policy may be out of step with science and global tourism trends.

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

The extension of the measures has been welcomed by industry groups who have argued that public health requirements could hamper Canadian tourism during the important summer season.

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

“There is obviously a discussion to find the right balance, to make sure that we keep an eye on public health but also on the fluidity of our economy,” Alghabra said on his way to a cabinet meeting.

Travelers 12 years of age and older must show proof of being fully immunized to board domestic or international flights departing from most Canadian airports. The requirements also apply to trains and cruise ships.

Since April, fully vaccinated travelers can enter Canada without a pre-entry COVID-19 test, but may be randomly tested upon arrival and must answer screening questions on the ArriveCan app. Pre-entry testing is still required for partially vaccinated or unvaccinated persons over the age of 12 who are eligible to travel to Canada. Travelers who do not meet vaccine requirements may be turned away at the border or required to self-quarantine for 14 days or until departure.

Public health officials have said repeatedly since the Omicron variant hit in late 2021 that the virus is more apt to spread between vaccinated people than its predecessors.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr Theresa Tam said the cabinet should reassess the measure given that vaccines now offer less protection against transmission, and the government says such reassessments are happening on an ongoing basis .

Vaccination mandates made sense when it came to curbing the spread of earlier variants of COVID-19, but as the virus has evolved these policies have outgrown their purpose, said medical specialist Dr. Zain Chagla of infectious diseases at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton.

“(It) doesn’t necessarily keep the benefits of those rules, only causing harm,” said Chagla, an associate professor at McMaster University.

To be considered fully immunized, travelers must present proof that they have received at least two doses of a series of vaccines (or at least one dose of the Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccine).

While research shows COVID-19 vaccines offer significant protection against serious disease, Chagla said new evidence suggests that two doses and a booster are less than 15% effective in preventing Omicron infection.

Unvaccinated people have also increasingly acquired some degree of immunity to the virus through infection, Chagla noted, suggesting that they are not at much higher risk of spreading the virus than the general population.

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

“Even though we try to stigmatize unvaccinated people, there are consequences on their lives that we really need to think about in the long term,” he said. “When the risk of infection is quite similar across most groups, I really think we need to include everyone in the ability to travel and make it a part of their lives.”

Meanwhile, members of the Canadian travel industry say continued restrictions could hamper the sector’s return.

Marty Firestone, president of Toronto-based insurance broker Travel Secure, said he’s heard from many customers frustrated with vaccine requirements. Most have been limited to road trips or staycations.

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

“When all of these things are removed, we will eventually be back to the new normal,” he said. “Right now, we’re not even close.”

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

But he’s convinced Canada is one of the most cautious countries in the world when it comes to COVID-19 travel rules, and he doesn’t see that changing anytime soon.

Officers had to deal with tense phone calls when first informing customers of vaccine requirements for travel, but that anger has since turned to resignation, Vanderlubbe said.

As the travel industry booms from the doldrums of COVID-19 shutdowns, Vanderlubbe said hypervigilance without a clear public health rationale could set Canada back as much of the world welcomes tourists again. Last month, Austria, Belgium and Vietnam joined the growing list of countries that have eased border restrictions.

“All of us in the travel industry want our customers to be happy, and we want as many people on planes as possible,” Vanderlubbe said. “If there is a health risk, why is Canada the only country in the world doing this? That’s my question.

-With files from Laura Osman in Ottawa

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

The Canadian Press

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