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'Mass confusion' amid changing messaging on trucker vaccine mandate: industry leader

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Industry experts are expressing concerns that this week's confusion on the new COVID-19 vaccine mandate for truckers may leave some drivers, who were under the impression they would be exempt, stuck if they are already en route, or facing two weeks with no paycheque while undergoing quarantine.

Mike Millian, president of the Private Motor Truck Council of Canada, told CTV News in an emailed statement that the group called for a temporary exemption for those unvaccinated truckers who were dispatched earlier this week after the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) said they would be exempt from having to quarantine or provide proof of a negative molecular test at the border.

"With the news circulating on the 13th, and no clarification or correction in messaging… many carriers then dispatched some unvaccinated drivers into the U.S. to cover loads that needed to be delivered," Millian said in the statement.

However, he told CTV’s Power Play later that day that their request for an exemption had been denied when they met with government officials Friday afternoon.

“We’ve asked for these drivers to be exempted that were sent out in that 16-hour window, and we were told it can’t happen,” he said. 

He said the trucking industry was not provided clarity on the mandate until the federal government publicly announced on Thursday that unvaccinated Canadians would not be exempted from the new federal vaccine mandate for truck drivers coming into effect Saturday.

In a joint statement, Canada's transportation, health, and public safety ministers said that Canada’s initial policy stands, requiring truckers coming into Canada from the U.S. to be fully vaccinated, or face PCR testing and quarantine requirements.

Despite the CBSA telling reporters on Wednesday that unvaccinated Canadian truck drivers arriving at the border would "remain exempt" from testing or quarantine requirements, the government says that information, provided by a spokesperson, was incorrect.

“During that 16-hour window, when government put out the statement that said returning Canadians won’t have to quarantine, some drivers were dispatched,” Millian said. “We have a supply chain shortage, a driver shortage. There’s loads that needed to be covered.

“So the announcement came out, some of them were dispatched, and 16 hours later, the government does an about face, and now we have drivers out on the road that when they return, are going to have to quarantine, and they also have to get a PCR test within 72 hours of arriving at the border, and they didn’t know about this until late yesterday afternoon.”

He called it a “fiasco,” saying it “left a lot of people with their head spinning.”

“There was no outreach to industry on this,” he said. “We found out the same way that everybody else did. So it was very concerning, it led to a lot of confusion, a lot of frustration."

As things stand, and as was initially the case before this week's confusion, unvaccinated Canadian truckers will have to "meet requirements for pre-entry, arrival and day eight testing, as well as quarantine requirements," as they can’t be denied entry into Canada.

Drivers will still be able to complete their deliveries, however.

In a partial exemption to the rules, Millian explained that he was told drivers will be given instructions at the border that clarify that they can continue driving to deliver the load in their trucks to its destination.

“Once that load is delivered, then they are immediately going to have to transport to their place of quarantine,” he said, adding that they will be allowed to drive to their place of quarantine if it is far away from where they delivered their truck’s load.

Millian doesn’t know how many drivers are affected in total, but said that around four or five members had directly reached out to him to say that they’d dispatched an unvaccinated driver during that window.

He pointed out that some of the unvaccinated drivers affected, if they had known of this requirement ahead of time, wouldn’t have left for a job that required them to go over the U.S. border.

“Now they’re going to lose a two week paycheque,” he said. “Plus they have to find a PCR test.” 

Unvaccinated or partially-vaccinated non-Canadian truckers will be turned away if they are unable to show proof of immunization or a valid medical contraindication to the COVID-19 vaccines.

In order to qualify as a fully-vaccinated foreign national, non-Canadian truckers have to have completed their authorized vaccine series at least 14 days before entering the country and have submitted the required information through the ArriveCAN app.

The U.S. has planned a similar mandate to go into effect for any driver crossing into the States as of Jan. 22.

SUPPLY CHAIN CONCERNS

Millian previously told CTV News Channel on Thursday that it is important to remember that truck drivers have been delivering necessary supplies amid the pandemic, such as medical gases to hospitals, COVID-19 vaccines, food and fuel, that could have disastrous impacts if halted.

"We already have a fractured supply chain and if we damage that, the supplies that we need for our own health and safety, we're going to see a shortage," Millian warned.

Canadian Trucking Alliance (CTA) President Stephen Laskowski told CTV's Your Morning that the new COVID-19 vaccine requirement for truckers "will definitely have a negative impact" on the supply chain, causing delays in goods reaching their destinations.

"There isn't one aspect of the supply chain that won't be impacted by this measure," Laskowski said Friday.

According to the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME) association, the trucking industry moves approximately 80 per cent of the annual $648 billion in Canada-U.S. trade.

Laskowski said some sectors will be harder-hit than others, based on their ability to secure freight transportation with a truck driver who meets the new vaccine requirements.

"Certain parts of our supply chain will be more exposed to this based on their ability to secure freight transportation. So the general... direction is disruption in certain sectors," he said.

The CTA reports that approximately 10 to 15 per cent of drivers in the industry are unvaccinated. Laskowski says this mandate would therefore take an estimated 12,000 Canadian truckers and thousands more from the U.S. off cross-border shipping routes.

He noted that this would be a sharp reduction in workers for an industry that is already facing a labour shortage.

"When these individuals leave the marketplace, there are no backups, those trucks sit," Laskowski said. "Unlike other sectors where there we can get people to temporarily fill in or fill in period, we can't, so this will be felt immediately."

Given how much of Canada's agri-food imports come into Canada by truck, Sylvain Charlebois, director of the agri-food analytics lab at Dalhousie University, has said that the mandate would be "the first public health measure that could disrupt trade between Canada and the United States since the start of the pandemic."

Industry experts on the other side of the border are also expressing concerns.

In a statement issued Thursday, Bob Costello, a senior vice president and chief economist at the American Trucking Associations (ATA) urged "leaders in Ottawa and Washington to reconsider these mandates so we can avoid any further economic disruptions."

Laskowski noted that the trucking industry is not opposed to the vaccine mandate, but was lobbying the federal government to work with supply chains to implement the requirement at a "less disruptive" date than Jan. 15.

"We're very supportive of the utilization of vaccines. It's the best tool in the toolbox, but the reality is, the trucking industry is a reflection of Canadian society," he said.

"Our industry is not immune to vaccine hesitancy shared by Canadians."

When asked in French during Friday's federal modelling update whether the trucker vaccine mandate will make a concrete difference to overall public health, Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo said he thinks increasing vaccination coverage in general does help.

"Canadian truckers are part of our general population, part of our society, so I believe it's very important to encourage vaccine adoption for the whole population," Njoo said. "I think in general, for any sector we need to continue with all the measures and all the tools and education to increase vaccine adoption, because the data up until now has clearly shown that vaccines are [safe] and effective for protecting people."

With files from CTVNews.ca's Rachel Aiello and Alexandra Mae Jones

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