The Conservative Party is renewing its efforts to get the federal government to lift all remaining COVID-19 restrictions, arguing that the country must drop all pandemic measures after two years of this health crisis.
The party tabled a motion in the House of Commons on Thursday – a legislative attempt to force the government to drop measures like the vaccination mandate for federal public servants, transport workers, Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel and the RCMP.
The government has already said that from April 1 it will have eliminated most travel-related COVID restrictions – such as pre-arrival testing and enforced quarantines – for fully vaccinated travellers.
While some restrictions will be relaxed or eliminated altogether, the government will still block travel by unvaccinated foreign nationals and require all travelers on planes and trains to wear masks and show proof of vaccination.
The Conservatives say they want all these measures to be lifted immediately. They argue that Canadians have done enough to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“We cannot be expected to live under these restrictions indefinitely,” said Tory MP Michael Barrett, health critic, during a debate in the House of Commons.
He said Canadians “can’t wait to get back to normal” and that Ottawa should follow the lead of provinces and territories, many of which have already dropped restrictions such as mandatory masking rules for public spaces.
“Science shows us that it is safe to lift these restrictions. Canadians notice Justin Trudeau’s indifference. In an Ottawa ruled by this NDP-Liberal coalition, they don’t look at the medical science, they look at the political science that they used to divide Canadians,” Barrett said, referring to the agreement between the Liberals and the NDP to work together on certain policy issues over the next three years.
Tory MP Melissa Lantsman, the party’s transport critic and an early backer of the anti-vaccine mandate protests, said it was time to drop vaccine requirements for truck drivers cross-border workers and other transportation industry workers, as the COVID situation is much more manageable now than it was when these mandates were imposed.
“It’s time to bring Canadians back to life,” Lantsman said. “It’s time to follow the science.”
Conservative MP Michael Cooper, who took part in the Ottawa convoy protests earlier this year, compared what he called Canada’s “draconian” restrictions on unvaccinated travelers to life in the former Soviet Union, where citizens were sometimes prohibited from traveling within the country.
He said restricting air travel to fully vaccinated people is “an unprecedented violation” of Charter rights and called the limits “COVID theatre”.
“What these mandates really mean is control. It’s about saying, ‘Do what we say and if you don’t you won’t be able to travel, you’ll lose your job and you’ll be vilified and you will be treated as a second class citizen. How fake, how un-Canadian,” Cooper said.
“Canadians don’t want to be controlled. They want to take back control of their lives. They want their freedom back and they want it now.”
The Conservative motion should fail. The other opposition parties, including the Bloc Québécois and the NDP, said Thursday that a sprint to eliminate all COVID-19 restrictions would be unwise.
NDP MP Don Davies, the party’s health critic, said withdrawing vaccination mandates now would be “irresponsible” and “harmful to the health of Canadians.”
Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux, Parliamentary Secretary to the Government House Leader, called the Conservative motion “dumb.”
“Conservatives can’t click their heels and wish the pandemic would end,” he said, claiming the party has become a “far-right” movement that panders to anti-vaccine elements.
“We must not let our guard down” – Duclos
Addressing the Commons on the motion, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the government was aware of the disruption of some of these restrictions for Canadians over the past two years – but he suggested that ‘with the highly transmissible variant of Omicron and its sub-variant, BA .2, in circulation, it is too early to drop all restrictions now.
“We want to put COVID behind us, but we can’t take our success for granted,” Duclos said. “COVID-19 is still very present in Canada and we must be careful. The epidemiological situation in Canada is improving but it is unstable. We must not let our guard down.”
Although cautious about dismantling the mandate regime, Dr Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said last week that the government was reviewing the policy with a view to ending it in the coming weeks.
Tam said all federal vaccine mandates are currently being reviewed because science tells us that the primary series of the COVID-19 vaccine — the first two doses — offer very little protection against the Omicron variant.
While scientists and vaccine developers initially thought these first two vaccines would reduce transmission of the COVID-19 virus, the emergence of new variants with different characteristics has upended that thinking, Tam said.
“What was a game-changer was a variant of Omicron, which is a vaccine escape variant,” Tam said.
WATCH: Dr Theresa Tam says pandemic travel measures are being reviewed
The first two doses do very little to prevent someone from getting COVID-19, but Tam said they still offer some protection against serious consequences like hospitalization and death.
Conservatives have pointed to Canada’s high vaccination rates to justify ending remaining federal restrictions on public servants and travellers. Duclos said the priority should be to bolster stalled booster vaccination rates, which remain stuck at around 60%. “These numbers are not enough,” he said.
After weeks of declines, the number of COVID-19 cases reported each day has increased in some Canadian jurisdictions.
But it’s hard to say how widespread the Omicron cases are at this point, as some provinces and territories have begun to dismantle their mass testing sites – while severely restricting who can access a PCR test to check the positivity.
With testing limited, Duclos said, the federal government is continuing a massive procurement effort to purchase many more rapid tests.
When Omicron first arrived in December, Ottawa had relatively few tests to distribute to provinces and territories to help Canadians check their status before gathering for Christmas festivities. Duclos said a recently passed bill, Bill C-10, will send $2.5 billion in new funds to Health Canada to maintain a steady supply of rapid tests in stock as the country enters a phase BA.2 of this pandemic.
Bloc MP Maxime Blanchette-Joncas said the Conservatives’ push to scrap all COVID measures is “excessive” given the spike in COVID-19 cases overseas. He said while the Bloc supports the government tabling some sort of timetable for ending the restrictions, it would be a mistake to simply revert now to pre-COVID policy.
“We have seen a major resurgence in COVID cases in Europe – in the UK, Ireland, Greece, Italy…,” he said. “It is downright irresponsible to want to lift all remaining measures at this precise moment.”
“It looks like another effort by conservatives to politicize the pandemic, vaccination and health measures,” he added, saying the party has become “the standard bearer for the most radical elements of the movement opposed to the measures. sanitary facilities”.