Some international travellers arriving in Alberta will be able to get tested for COVID-19 as soon as they enter the country, allowing them to shorten their quarantine time to just a few days.
The pilot project, which could be expanded elsewhere in the country, will mark a significant shift in the approach to international travellers during the pandemic and will make it easier for Canadians who want to travel abroad but can’t manage a two-week quarantine period when they return.
Premier Jason Kenney said the goal is to limit the disruption for travellers coming into Canada, including business travellers or Albertans returning home, while helping the struggling travel industry.
“Recognizing ... the fact that COVID is not going away any time soon, we’ve been looking at new ways to support the travel industry and support safe travel," Mr. Kenney said at a news conference in Calgary.
“We must find ways to bring back safe travel if we are ever going to get the economy firing again on all cylinders."
Currently, the federal government requires anyone entering the country to quarantine for 14 days. The border is closed to tourism and non-essential trips, but there are still flights coming into the country for Canadians returning home, essential workers, family reunification and some business travel.
As of Nov. 2, international travellers arriving at the Calgary airport or crossing from Montana at the land crossing in Coutts, Alta., will have the option to take a COVID-19 test.
Those travellers will be required to isolate until they receive their test result, but if the test comes back negative, they no longer have to quarantine as long as they agree to stay in Alberta for 14 days, wear a mask in public, provide daily symptom updates to health officials and avoid visiting places with vulnerable groups. They must also take a second test at a pharmacy six or seven days after arriving.
If they have symptoms at any point in that process, they will be required to go back into quarantine.
Mr. Kenney said the current rules mean that if someone in Alberta wants to take a one-week trip outside the country, they may need to take three weeks off work to account for the quarantine requirement. This will shorten that time considerably.
Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the goal is to reduce quarantine restrictions while ensuring travellers don’t add to Canada’s COVID-19 burden.
“It [the quarantine requirement] has been a huge irritant and challenge for businesses and for travellers and for also family reunification – all of the kinds of things we’ve talked about over the last several months," Ms. Hajdu told reporters in Ottawa.
Ms. Hajdu declined to say when the measures could be rolled out to other provinces. In Alberta, the government plans to expand it to Edmonton’s airport early next year.
Tim Sly, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus at Ryerson University’s School of Public Health, said Canada has been slow to increase testing for outgoing and incoming travellers, so he viewed Thursday’s announcement as a good step.
However, he questioned the wisdom in allowing travellers to leave quarantine so soon after arriving. He said if someone is infected just before setting off on their trip or infected en route, the first test won’t detect that and they could become infectious before the results of their second test a week later.
“If somebody is arriving on the plane in Calgary and they’ve been infected in the airport before they left or on the plane during the journey,” he said, “the test when they arrive is going to be useless. It’s far too soon."
He said it would be safer to keep those travellers isolated until that second test, which could still cut the quarantine period in half.
John McKenna, president of the Air Transport Association of Canada, which represents 30 regional carriers, said the changes in Alberta are a good start that will help the industry.
“That’s one of the keys to getting this industry going again: cutting down the quarantine time that’s discouraging anybody from flying,” he said.
Mr. McKenna said that to work, the rules need to be uniform across the country, including where there are regional quarantine requirements, such as in the “Atlantic bubble” on the East Coast.
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