The federal government is backing down from mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for cross-border Canadian truckers just days before the new rule was set to take effect.
A spokesperson for the Canadian Border Services Agency told Global News Wednesday that unvaccinated Canadian truckers crossing from the United States will remain exempt from testing and quarantine requirements after arriving in the country.
Those requirements will, however, still apply to unvaccinated or partially vaccinated foreign nationals, including American truck drivers starting this Saturday, spokesperson Rebecca Purdy said.
Those truckers will be forced to turn back to the U.S. until they are fully inoculated.
Ottawa announced in mid-November that all truck drivers crossing into Canada would need to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 15, regardless of nationality. Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated Canadian truckers would have been required to take a COVID-19 test and enter isolation.
Wednesday’s reversal came as a surprise to Canadian Trucking Alliance president Stephen Laskowski, who told the Canadian Press industry representatives had met with government officials as recently as midday Wednesday and were told the mandate was still on track for Saturday.
Trade associations on both sides of the border had been pushing for a delay to the restriction, which they said would put additional strain on supply chains amid the latest COVID-19 surge and severe worker shortages.
Trucking groups in several provinces had also called on Ottawa to delay the mandate to allow truckers to get vaccinated, or for new hires to replace those who refused.
The CTA had projected 10 to 15 per cent of cross-border truckers would be sidelined as a result of the new policy, with roughly 12,000 drivers from Canada affected.
Estimates from the Canadian government, however, had come in lower at roughly five per cent, according to a source quoted by Reuters over the weekend.
Laskowski told Reuters that even though the vast majority of Canadian truckers are vaccinated, those who are not “are already starting to quit,” adding that the industry is already short some 18,000 drivers.
More than two-thirds of the $650 billion in goods traded annually between Canada and the United States travels on roads.
The U.S. is set to enact its own vaccine mandate for essential workers at the border on Jan. 22.
American Trucking Association chief economist Bob Costello estimates that just under half of the 28,000 U.S. drivers who regularly haul freight across the border will no longer be able to do so, posing a threat to the smooth supply of goods.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole warned last week that “we’re going to see prices skyrocket for groceries, for everything,” and that the Liberal government’s vaccine mandate would spark “division and pink slips.”
Supply chain disruptions drove Canada’s headline inflation rate to an 18-year high in November, and the Bank of Canada has signaled that it could hike it as soon as April.
The job vacancy rate in transportation and warehousing hit 5.2 per cent in the third quarter of 2021, below the average of 5.4 per cent across all sectors, according to Statistics Canada.
However, the Trucking HR Canada trade group said the number of vacancies among truck drivers in particular rose 20 per cent from the second quarter of 2020 to 22,990 jobs, for a vacancy rate of about eight per cent between July and September.
Days before the Saturday deadline, the Canadian Trucking Alliance said the government hadn’t provided all the details with regards to compliance.
–With files from Global’s Craig Lord, the Canadian Press and Reuters