As Canada’s new vaccine mandate for cross-border truckers goes into effect, industry and experts are raising concerns about the potential impact on B.C.’s already strained supply chain.
Under rules that came into force Saturday, Canadian truckers must be fully vaccinated to cross the border without a pre-arrival PCR test and to avoid quarantine, while unvaccinated U.S. truckers will be turned back.
The restrictions could take 10 to 15 per cent of B.C. cross-border truckers — about 800 to 1,000 people — off the road, said Dave Earle, president and CEO of the BC Trucking Association.
“If it’s good public health policy or not, that’s the decision that governments have to make, and it’s a challenging decision,” he said.
“But understand, if you’re going to take out 10 to 15 per cent of the Canadian work force, what that’s going to do to our economy and to our ability to meet our daily needs.”
Earle said the loss of those drivers will cut the capacity to move goods. He predicted the squeeze will begin to be felt within the next 10 days to two weeks.
Empty shelves are unlikely, he said, but lower-priced goods could be adversely affected.
“Supply and demand — it’s going to cost more to move a given load,” Earle said.
“If your load is a bunch of Apple products coming out of Cupertino (in California) and moving up to the Lower Mainland, having a bill go up significantly on that is a lot different than a bill going up significantly on a load of lettuce.”
However professor Sylvain Charlebois, an expert in food distribution and food policy at Dalhousie University, said empty shelves could be a reality, at least at grocery stores.
Like every other sector, the trucking industry is already grappling with staffing shortages because of wide transmission of the Omicron variant, he said, adding it’s something a reduction in cross-border traffic will exacerbate.
“This is the first time we see a public health measure impacting our borders’ fluidity since the start of the pandemic,” he said.
“We’ve always believed as long as the border remains open, we should be fine from a food security perspective.”
Canada imports about $25 billion worth of food products every year, Charlebois said — 70 per cent of it coming across the U.S. land border.
Those imports are particularly important in the winter, he noted, when grocery stores rely on produce grown in southern climates.
“This is probably the worst time. The middle of January, we import a lot of produce,” he said.
Charlebois said it’s unclear what effect the mandate could have on prices, but that the cost of food is already forecast to climb five to seven per cent in 2022.
Earle said the impact of the mandate was compounded by Ottawa’s confusing rollout, after the Canada Border Services Agency suggested earlier this week that the federal government would back down on the policy.
That confusion only added to the feeling of “death by a thousand cuts” for drivers, he said, after navigating two years of COVID.
“The cuts are getting pretty deep.”