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Government, airlines won’t disclose how often travellers are being checked for vaccination status

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The first stage of the government’s promised vaccine mandate for air travellers took effect recently. All passengers must either be vaccinated or have proof of a negative COVID-19 test.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The federal government is refusing to disclose how often the vaccination status of air travellers is being confirmed in what the Liberals billed as a broad vaccine mandate but which is so far only being enforced through random checks.

On Saturday, the first stage of the government’s promised vaccine mandate for air travellers took effect, requiring all passengers to be either vaccinated or present a negative COVID-19 test. However, while passengers need to attest to being vaccinated, their actual vaccination status or test result is not always verified.

“We made the decision to randomly check status for a short period in line with advice from the Public Health Agency of Canada. This also prevents further congestion in airports,” said Valérie Glazer, spokesperson for Transport Minister Omar Alghabra.

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British Columbia NDP MP and transport critic Taylor Bachrach said he took three flights to get home from Ottawa on Saturday without once being asked to prove he is vaccinated.

“The goal of the program is to protect air passengers from possible COVID-19 transmission and the best way to do that is to ensure that people on airplanes are vaccinated,” he said, noting that small businesses in many parts of the country are required to do this with every customer that walks through their doors.

“What we need is a credible, thorough process for validating people’s vaccine passports, that’s what Canadians expect and that’s what the Minister should have delivered,” Mr. Bachrach said.

Mr. Alghabra’s ministerial order, issued last Friday, says that air carriers are required to request proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test from a “certain number of persons, as specified by the Minister and selected on a random basis.”

Since Tuesday the government has refused to say what portion of passengers are being asked to present their proof of vaccination. Ms. Glazer did not explain why the government is not releasing that information.

As of Nov. 30, the option of getting a negative COVID-19 test to travel by air will expire. At that point, Ms. Glazer said, “all travellers will need to show proof of vaccination” (with rare exceptions). The airlines are in the process of implementing a system that will allow passengers to upload a nationally standardized proof of vaccination credential, she added.

Air Canada, WestJet and Porter Airlines declined to say how often they are verifying vaccination status, instead telling The Globe and Mail to ask the government. Air Transat did not provide a response.

Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said that the airline will stop relying on random checks at the end of the month and that the airline’s digital check-in system is being updated to allow customers to upload their vaccine certificates.

John Gradek, who teaches aviation leadership at McGill University, said the rollout of the vaccine mandate is “kind of a mess,” noting that the responsibility for checking passenger’s vaccination status is shared with the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, the government agency that screens people and baggage.

The randomized approach that security agents are using to check vaccination status is similar to the method used to test for explosives, Ms. Glazer said, calling it a “statistically significant sample of passengers.”

She added that the random checks are being conducted with advice from the Public Health Agency of Canada and that Transport Canada inspectors are enforcing the policy, but she did not say how many inspectors there are.

Mr. Bachrach said the government’s changing approach shows it wasn’t ready to implement the policy when it was first rolled out: “It’s a bit of ready, fire, aim.”

The Conservatives said the policy is out of step with what the Prime Minister pledged during the election would be a rigorous vaccine mandate. “It is just another example of Justin Trudeau using the pandemic to divide Canadians,” party spokesperson Josie Sabatino said.

On Thursday, the Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable called on the government to end rules that it said makes international travel inaccessible for families. The group is asking Ottawa to remove the requirement for a COVID-19 PCR test for vaccinated travellers returning to Canada and to end the quarantine requirement for children who don’t yet qualify for a vaccine.

Mr. Alghabra’s office said the government’s rules at the border are based on the available data and scientific evidence.

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