Dr. Sylvain Charlebois

Trudeau needs to shelve his plan to ban unvaccinated truckers

It puts Canadians’ access to food at risk

The federal government apparently still wants to push ahead with its plan to require all truckers entering from the United States to show proof of vaccination starting Jan. 15. The plan creates some serious problems.

Vaccines are the most effective way to reduce risks associated with COVID-19, stop the spread of the virus and save lives. No doubt. But the situation affecting the trucking industry could be challenging and impact food access for Canadians.

This is the first public health measure with the potential to disrupt trade between Canada and the United States since the pandemic started.

According to the Canadian Trucking Alliance, about 16,000 drivers could be forced off the road. The federal government believes its measure will only 8,000 drivers. Still, we need these drivers more than ever. And many of them transport food products across the border every day. If a driver crosses the border into Canada without being vaccinated, they will need to quarantine for 14 days.

Canada imports about $21 billion worth of agri-food products from the United States every year, and about 60 to 70 per cent of the food imported arrives on wheels. That’s almost 20 per cent of the food Canadians buy in food service and retail.

And the timing isn’t great. Much of the volume comes during the winter months when produce from the southern states offers welcome supplies to Canadian consumers. Stopping some of that business could exacerbate the driver shortage the industry is already experiencing and could drive up retail prices even further in the weeks to come.

The industry was already short 18,000 drivers. Given the average age in the trucking industry, the vaccine mandate could encourage many truckers to simply retire and exit the industry.

Long-distance truck driving isn’t the most attractive sector in our economy. Unlike other industries, trucking works independently most of the time. The average trucker will spend more than 250 nights away from home every year. Compared to other essential workers, contact with other people is minimal. A vaccine mandate might not help extensively in this case.

Since the start of the pandemic, granting exceptions to certain groups who were deemed essential services has been controversial. Most Canadians are dead against it, and the Trudeau government knows it.

The government has implemented a strict inoculation policy for civil servants and federally-regulated workers since the start of the pandemic. Omicron has only motivated the government to stick with its resolve on vaccine mandates.

But border access can become a food security issue for Canadians.

Quebec recently backed down from its vaccine mandate for health-care workers, concerned such a measure would put even more strain on the province’s already frail health-care system. The province followed this by asking workers to comply with strict new protocols to reduce risks in hospitals and health centres.

Something similar can be done for truckers.

Vaccines are by far the best weapon to end the pandemic, but we also need to appreciate that not all of us are believers. Ten to 15 per cent of people in any given field resist getting vaccines and will likely never change their minds.

We’ve learned that the effectiveness of vaccine mandates to bring about compliance is constrained. We’ve wrestled with this for more than a year and most of us will likely need to get vaccinated more than once a year for an indeterminable time. What it means to be fully vaccinated this year might not be the same as next year, and truckers know that. This is our inoculation new normal.

The decision to implement a vaccine mandate for truckers was made when Omicron wasn’t around. This new variant is incredibly contagious and spreads like wildfire.

Omicron is already disrupting the entire food chain in Canada. Absenteeism rates are at least 15 to 20 per cent in food retail, and processing is seeing similar numbers. The Exceldor plant in Quebec was forced to euthanize chickens in recent weeks due to low staff numbers.

Many workers are either sick or were exposed to someone who was sick. Omicron is hitting the entire economy hard and fast, so we should all be concerned about Canada’s food access.

From a food supply chain perspective, Omicron is a game-changer. The supply chain is quite fragile, more than it’s ever been.

Many who have contracted COVID have been fully vaccinated, but in most cases, thankfully, symptoms were mild. Still, asking food and logistics companies to follow strict protocols dramatically slowed things down. A lot of the food reaching stores in Canada is spoiled or not as fresh as it should be. Canadians are noticing.

Public health measures need to be adapted so the food industry can continue to provide Canadians with safe, affordable food for the next few months as we try to cope with Omicron’s wrath. Food inflation is already a challenge in Canada, and the vaccine mandate affecting truckers could make things worse, especially for families with fewer means.

We need to be careful with vaccine mandates that could impact the effectiveness of our food supply chain. Some measures are worth second-guessing.

Cancelling hockey tournaments and other events is one thing – potentially compromising the fluidity of our food supply chain is very different. The stakes are much, much higher.

We really need to strike a functional balance between saving lives and keeping Canadians fed.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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