The Bank of Canada is keeping its key interest rate target on hold at 0.25 per cent, but warning it won't stay there for much longer.

The trendsetting rate has been at its rock-bottom level since March 2020 during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic as the economy went into a downturn and three million jobs were lost.

The central bank said Wednesday the rebound since then and especially over the last few months has been stronger than it anticipated.

In a statement, the bank's senior decision-makers said the economy is running at capacity, including a labour market that is by most standards back at pre-pandemic levels.

The rebound is why it now says it will no longer promise to keep its key policy rate at 0.25 per cent, adding that rates will need to rise to bring inflation back to the central bank's two per cent target.

CIBC chief economist Avery Shenfeld said he expects the Bank of Canada to raise rates in March if the country gets better news about the Omicron variant.

The central bank didn't outline the timing or pace of increases in its statement, but the decision to hold off on a first hike will be controversial in financial markets at a time when headline inflation is at a 30-year high, says Stephen Tapp, chief economist at the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.

The Bank of Canada warned in its updated economic outlook that inflation rates are likely to creep above five per cent for the first quarter before easing by the end of the year.

The pace of price growth is then expected to ease by the end of 2022, but inflation for the entire year is forecasted to clock in at 4.2 per cent, up from the 3.4 per cent the bank forecasted in October.

Surveys from the Bank of Canada suggest Canadians are now expecting inflation rates to remain higher for longer. 

The longer inflation rates stay high, the more likely Canadians will believe they will stay elevated over the long-term, which the bank worries could lead to runaway price growth.

In the rate announcement, the bank said it will use its policy tools to ensure "near-term inflation expectations do not become embedded in ongoing inflation."

The central bank estimates the economy grew by 4.6 per cent in 2021, down half a percentage point from its previous forecast in October, and now projects growth in real gross domestic product in 2022 at four per cent, down from 4.3 per cent.

The Bank of Canada said part of the downgrade this year is due to the impact of Omicron, hints from governments that spending is easing earlier than expected, and supply chain issues that will have “larger and more broad-based negative implications on economic activity” this year.

The bank said the possibility of more variants in the future renewing restrictions here and abroad also cloud the outlook. 

Jordan Press, The Canadian Press