The union representing workers at B.C. Ferries has asked Transport Canada to review its decision to ban passengers from remaining in their vehicles on the lower car decks during sailings.
In a letter addressed to Julie Gascon, the director general of marine safety and security for Transport Canada, the federal transport minister, Premier John Horgan, public health officials and others, Graeme Johnston, president of the B.C. Ferry and Marine Workers Union, said with COVID-19 variants likely to take root in B.C. at some point, it’s time to review the risk assessment for travel on all passenger vessels and consider relaxing the rule about remaining in vehicles on enclosed decks.
“We believe the increased risk of COVID-19 infection from highly contagious virus variants … may outweigh the risks of passengers remaining in their vehicles on enclosed decks in many circumstances,” Johnston wrote.
In 2017, Transport Canada ruled passengers on the lower, enclosed levels could no longer remain in their vehicles during crossings. The federal body relaxed the rule early in the pandemic, but reinstated it in September.
Passengers, including B.C.’s premier, have voiced opposition to the rule, suggesting they are better protected from COVID-19 if they are permitted to stay in their vehicles.
In an interview, Johnston said acting now is essential, rather than waiting for COVID variants to take hold.
“We are worried that Transport Canada may not not be in a proactive way assessing what the risk of new variants looks like, particularly in shared passenger spaces,” he said. “We want to make sure Transport Canada and B.C. Ferries are doing proactive work to get in front of the community spread of these variants.
“The variants are coming here and are going to take root in Canada, almost certainly before vaccine efficacy can take hold here.”
Mark Collins, chief executive of B.C. Ferries, said he understands the concerns of passengers, politicians and the union, noting the corporation did lobby Transport Canada last fall to allow people to stay in their cars.
“I get where British Columbians are coming from, that the car deck is safe, and generally speaking it is,” he said. “But having said that, it is even safer upstairs.”
In an interview, Collins said there are a host of safety measures in place above deck for the express purpose of keeping people safe during a voyage and B.C. Ferries continues to follow the lead of the provincial health officer when it comes to safety regulations.
When asked if B.C. Ferries should review the practices given the spectre of new virus variants, Collins said that is top of mind and the corporation is always “looking for the best way to do things.”
Passengers are required to wear masks and are encouraged to adhere to social distancing.
Johnston’s letter stated that at the very least there should be a review of the risk assessments for Canadian passenger vessels.
“This review should take place in the window we have right now, before community spread of the B.1.1.7 (or similar) variant becomes widespread/dominant,” he wrote. “This review should include onboard food services, and the requirement for passengers to leave their vehicles.”
A spokesperson from Transport Canada was not available to comment Monday.