Public Safety Minister Bill Blair says the Canada Border Services Agency is ramping up its screening efforts at all major points of entry after Canadian travellers returning from abroad said they were concerned over a lack of scrutiny.
In an attempt to quell fears from travellers who were trapped in long lineups over the weekend and who faced few questions from officers, Mr. Blair said he wanted to assure Canadians that all of the actions taken at Canada’s borders have been informed by “evidence and expert advice.”
Mr. Blair said going forward, all Canadians returning from international destinations will be asked as they pass through passenger kiosks: “Do you currently have a cough, difficulty breathing, or feel you have a fever?” Returning travellers will also be asked to acknowledge that they are being urged to self-isolate for the next 14 days.
However, the Conservative Party has called for mandatory self-isolation. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday enforcement measures by public health and public safety officials would be required to make the measure compulsory.
Officials in Quebec expressed impatience with the roll-out of federal screening at airports, so they started their own system. At Montreal’s Trudeau airport, the province and the city sent dozens of white-vested public health workers and police cadets to quiz international arrivals about their health status, hand out pamphlets and reinforce the need to self-isolate.
“We are asking a lot of our citizens, it only makes sense we make sure people returning home understand their situation,” said Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante.
The government announced that it is banning travellers who are not Canadian citizens or permanent residents from entering the country, apart from U.S. citizens, air crews, diplomats and immediate family members of Canadian citizens. Mr. Blair said by reducing the number of non-Canadian travellers, Canada will see a “significant reduction” in people who need to be processed. He added that passengers who are identified as being ill will be met at the gate by security officers, kept away from passenger processing areas and referred immediately to public health officials.
Canadians returning to the country have faced inconsistent levels of screening at airports and borders over the past 24 hours, even after the federal government announced this weekend that they would be ramping up screening and urging Canadians abroad to come home.
In some cases, there have been additional questions from border guards and pamphlets handed out to advise travellers on whom to call if they fall ill. In other cases, travellers say they were waved through customs – even, in some cases, when coming from high-risk countries, or when fellow passengers have been ill.
Adam Nagler described his family’s experience at Pearson airport in Toronto on Sunday evening as “deeply upsetting,” noting that the advice they were given – in the form of a photocopied information sheet – was out of date. It advised them only to monitor their health and self-isolate if they develop symptoms.
Mr. Nagler said his family will be spending the next two weeks in self-isolation, a decision he hoped would have been mandatory – especially given that a fellow passenger was removed from their flight upon landing, after becoming ill with a fever, he said.
Aaron Lakoff got the same info sheet at the Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport on Sunday evening, after arriving from Washington, D.C. He said he too was waved through customs after very few questions. He too will spend the next two weeks in self-isolation.
When asked about screening measures, Mr. Trudeau said the situation, “has been evolving extremely rapidly," adding the government is taking more measures Monday, including mandating air operators prevent all travellers who present symptoms of COVID-19 from boarding a plane.
“We’ve already seen shifts at the airports where every single traveller gets asked if they have symptoms, gets asked to acknowledge that they’ve been asked to self-isolate,” Mr. Trudeau said.
Charlotte Gregg, a University of Ottawa student who had been on exchange in the Netherlands, said she did not receive any information pamphlet when she arrived at Pearson airport Sunday around 3:20 p.m.
Passengers heard only an announcement over the plane’s intercom that the government was “recommending” that travellers self-quarantine for 14 days (which she said she will be doing).
In the airport, she said there was no special signage. “It was like any other time that I’ve flown,” she said. “I felt like it was a joke.”
When Amy Stuart arrived at the same airport roughly six hours later, she did not receive any sort of information sheet. She had been in California for a wedding, and expected to return to an airport full of staff wearing masks and gloves.
She said the only question she and her husband were asked by the customs machine was whether they had travelled to Italy or China. After that, border security guards were waving people through.
“They were like, ‘go, go, just go through,’ ” she said.
Mr. Blair said in addition to the new screening questions, there will be more officers present at all major points of entry. He said officers will be watching for travellers who look ill and may refer cases to public health authorities.
Passengers will be given instructional handouts upon arriving, he said, which will advise people to self-isolate at home for 14 days, to monitor themselves for symptoms and to contact public health authorities if they develop any illness. There will also be increased signage.
The Globe and Mail
With a report from Les Perreaux
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