UPDATE 2:03 p.m.
Unvaccinated workers on leave since the fall will be able to return to work at airports and airlines starting Monday, potentially easing the bottlenecks plaguing Canada's biggest air transport hubs daily.
The federal government announced Tuesday that federally regulated employees no longer have to be fully vaccinated as of Monday, rolling back a mandate imposed on air, rail and marine companies in October.
The Greater Toronto Airports Authority says hundreds of workers at the 400-plus companies and agencies that operate at Pearson airport are currently suspended without pay.
"While vaccination rates have been high throughout the Toronto Pearson worker community during the pandemic, there are hundreds of workers across the Pearson ecosystem who are sitting on the sidelines due to this policy, and in a situation where we could use every trained and able body to support our recovery, this represents a very positive development," the authority said.
Canadian Airports Council head Monette Pasher says the worst airport congestion should be cleared before the summer travel season is through, with up to 10 per cent of airport employees on leave due to vaccine mandates.
Canada's airport security agency says it has hired more than 850 security screeners since April, which along with the scrapping of randomized COVID-19 tests for international passengers as of last Saturday is already improving delays, the council said.
Aside from Pearson — the epicentre of Canada's passenger gridlock — airports experiencing frequent delays include Vancouver, Montreal, Quebec City and Kelowna, B.C.
ORIGINAL 10:42 a.m.
The Canadian government will "suspend" COVID-19 vaccine mandates for domestic and outbound international travellers and federally regulated workers, government ministers announced Tuesday.
The new rules will come into effect on June 20, though the requirements for foreign nationals coming to Canada will not change.
Several ministers lauded Canada's high vaccination rate at a news conference to announce the changes, but Intergovernmental affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc warned the government is prepared to "bring back" necessary policies if there's a resurgence of the virus in the fall.
Travel industry groups have blamed federal public health measures and mandates for slowdowns at airport customs that have contributed to long waits for passengers and forced flight delays and cancellations and have put increasing pressure on the government to do away with them.
LeBlanc says the decision to drop the federal mandate is not a response to the situation at Canada's airports but rather is "based on science."
"We don't regret at all being cautious when it comes to a virus that has tragically killed tens of thousands of Canadians and millions of people around the world," he said. "Acting prudently has saved lives."
The Public Health Agency of Canada has reported a steadily declining number of COVID-19 cases, though provinces are no longer providing COVID-19 molecular tests for the general public and federal reporting has become less regimented.
The government announced last week it would suspend random testing at airports for vaccinated travellers, with plans to move testing off-site by next month. But after that announcement, the Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable called on the government to go further and end vaccine mandates for travellers and staff at Canada's airports.
The vaccine mandate will also be lifted for domestic travellers on passenger trains and buses, allowing unvaccinated Canadians to move more freely around the country, as well as federal workers who have been put on unpaid leave because of their vaccination status.
The government hasn't revealed how many employees have been put on leave, but reports 98.5 per cent of public servants are fully vaccinated with two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.
The Public Service Alliance of Canada filed a policy grievance against the government earlier this year on behalf of those put on leave as well as public servants who work from home but still needed to be vaccinated or risk losing their pay. Several other public sector unions have made similar challenges.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first pitched vaccine mandates for federal workers and domestic travellers during the summer election, before the Omicron wave hit Canada full force.
The government made no secret that it hoped the mandates would pressure Canadians to get their shots, saying the move was necessary to protect the public from severe illness and transmission of the virus.
After the Omicron variant overwhelmed the country, opposition members and some experts began to question the effectiveness of the mandate, since Omicron was still transmissible among people considered fully inoculated.
However, some public health experts have called on the government to add a third dose to the vaccine mandate to protect against severe illness.
"Two doses is not enough to provide vaccine effectiveness against Omicron infection," chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said at a briefing Friday.
While more than 89 per cent of Canadians over the age of 12 have at least two doses of an approved COVID-19 vaccine, only about 55 per cent of them have received a booster shot.
Tam said policy decisions about vaccine mandates are made by cabinet, and she has been providing data to support their decisions.
"But that's not the only information that the relevant employers or ministers have to take into account," she said.