A new rule requiring international air travellers arriving in Canada to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test provides an additional layer of safety in the fight against the pandemic, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said, rejecting airline industry demands to delay or revamp the public-health measure.
The rule, which goes into effect on Jan. 7, requires all passengers to prove they have tested negative in the 72 hours before they will be allowed to board their flight to Canada.
“The pandemic is far from over,” Mr. Garneau told reporters on Wednesday. “We need to continue to be vigilant and we need to continue to take action.”
A negative test does not eliminate the obligation of passengers to self-isolate for 14 days, he said, nor does it exempt them from other public-health measures, including wearing a mask on board and in the airport, physical distancing where possible, and having their body temperature measured.
Canada’s borders have been closed to most non-Canadians for several months, and travel within the country has been restricted in some regions. Mr. Garneau said the new measure coincides with the lifting of a ban on flights from Britain, a step the government took on Dec. 23 in reaction to the discovery of a COVID-19 variant that is more transmissible.
At a news conference, Mr. Garneau and other ministers reiterated the government’s advisory against international travel as a way to limit the spread of the virus that has killed more than 16,000 Canadians.
“As we have been saying for months … non-essential travel continues to be strongly discouraged,” Mr. Garneau said.
“Now is not the time to go on a holiday abroad,” Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said.
For people departing regions in which there are delays in obtaining a test, including the Caribbean and South America, Mr. Garneau said they temporarily will be allowed to take a test 96 hours before boarding.
The accepted swab test methods are called a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test or loop-mediated isothermal amplification, and must be taken by anyone five years and older.
John Gradek, a lecturer on aviation leadership at McGill University, said the new measures are Canada’s attempt to catch up with other countries, where testing measures have been in place, at a time when virus infections are soaring. “It’s about time,” Mr. Gradek said.
There were 59 international flights that landed in Canada with at least one confirmed case of COVID-19 on board between Dec. 22 and Jan. 2, according to government data. Another 13 flights departing Canada for foreign cities had an infected person on board.
About 6,000 COVID-19 infections, or 2 per cent of all cases, are linked to travel outside Canada, according to the government, and almost 3,500 cases are associated with contact with a traveller. More than a third of Canada’s cases have no known source.
In a statement, the opposition Conservative Party said the test requirement will make it more difficult for Canadians trying to return home, and presents another setback for airlines struggling with a collapse in demand.
The airline industry has pushed the government to delay the rule’s implementation, saying testing should be accompanied by loosened travel restrictions.
Morgan Bell, a WestJet spokeswoman, said the airline has advocated for a co-ordinated testing system on Canadian soil to counter the pandemic and “boost travellers’ confidence.”
“This latest announcement by the federal government is specifically the type of chaotic situation WestJet has been seeking to avoid,” Ms. Bell said. “It’s why we, as an industry, have continued to advocate for a co-ordinated testing regime on Canadian soil to mitigate COVID-19 and increase the confidence of travellers.
“We do not believe we are in a position to dictate what essential travel is or should look like. However, WestJet has gone above and beyond the regulatory requirements to ensure the safety of those travelling.”
Air Canada did not respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, the Ontario and federal governments said on Wednesday that they will begin offering free, voluntary tests for international travellers arriving at Toronto Pearson International Airport.
“We have over 60,000 people coming through this airport from international destinations each and every week, and amid this terrible global pandemic … we need to do everything in our power to secure our borders,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said. “We need to do everything possible to stop this virus from coming into Canada.”
Airports that offer some form of testing include Calgary and Vancouver. Toronto has been offering another government sponsored testing program that is part of a McMaster Health Labs study. Unlike the Calgary tests, the Toronto program does not offer shorter quarantines for negative tests.
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