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Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos introduced the new international travel advisory just 10 days before Christmas.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

Ontario is speeding up COVID-19 booster shots for all adults, and the federal government reimposed its advisory against all non-essential international travel, as Canada tries to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

The new measures announced by Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government on Wednesday include expanded booster shots, a shortened time frame between second and third doses, reduced capacity limits by half in large entertainment spaces and sports venues, and more available rapid testing.

“It’s all hands on deck and it starts with booster shots. Nothing matters more than getting these third shots into arms,” Mr. Ford said at a news conference at Queen’s Park.

Canada reimposes advisory against all non-essential international travel

Provinces expand access to free COVID-19 rapid testing kits

In Ottawa, federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos brought in the new international travel advisory just 10 days before Christmas, and as airports were expecting December to be the busiest month yet since the start of the pandemic.

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Doug Ford on Wednesday said his government was looking to significantly scale up vaccinations to between 200,000 and 300,000 people a day.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

But he stopped short of imposing more significant restrictions that were also under consideration by Ottawa, including a travel ban on all foreign nationals and imposing a two-week quarantine or isolation requirement for returning travellers.

Still, Mr. Duclos warned that leaving the country poses a significant risk and more changes to the rules are still possible.

“To those who were planning to travel, I say very clearly: Now is not the time to travel,” Mr. Duclos said.

The rapid spread of the Omicron variant on a global scale “makes us fear the worst for Canadians,” he said, noting that people who travel abroad risk being stranded as Canada and other countries continue to change their travel rules.

At a separate press conference in Ottawa on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the new travel advisory means “a lot of people will choose to cancel travel plans during the holidays.”

He added that the advisory is a “clear indication of how seriously we take this new variant and the situation we’re in.”

Conservative MP Melissa Lantsman criticized the travel advisory, telling CTV News it doesn’t keep Canadians safer from Omicron.

The government says it still plans to expand its on-arrival testing and isolation rules, which so far are only being randomly applied to air travellers. But more than two weeks after the new rule was announced for all air travellers from outside the United States, Ottawa can’t yet say when it will be fully in place.

Getting booster shots in arms and expanding the use of rapid tests will be critical, Mr. Duclos said. The Health Minister said the government has already made 85 million rapid tests available to provinces and territories and an extra 35 million are being delivered.

He also said the government has 16 million booster doses available in stock and more will be arriving in the next few weeks.

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Quebec on Wednesday reported 2,386 new cases of COVID-19, the most in the province since January, as it scrambled to prepare for the spread of the Omicron variant.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

Mr. Ford on Wednesday said his government was looking to significantly scale up vaccinations to between 200,000 and 300,000 people a day, asking anyone in the health system, unions and private sector to help out. He said beyond cutting capacity in larger venues, the province isn’t looking to further lock down, but rather focus on expanding rapid tests and booster shots. However, he added that “everything is on the table” if case numbers continue to rise.

Starting Monday, Ontario will open up boosters to adults 18 and over. But as early as Friday, some pharmacies can start providing boosters to adults on a walk-in basis, the government said, adding that it’s up to the pharmacies to decide. Ontario is also cutting down the six-month interval between second and third doses to just three months, or 84 days, meaning millions of people will be eligible earlier.

The province also announced that it is slashing capacity limits by 50 per cent starting on Saturday at indoor entertainment and sports venues with a capacity of more than 1,000 people, such as event spaces, fitness facilities, concert venues, theatres and cinemas.

In addition, Ontario launched its “holiday blitz” rapid-testing program on Wednesday, with two million kits available for free at malls, holiday markets, public libraries, transit hubs and liquor stores, with the initial locations primarily in the Toronto area.

As Omicron COVID-19 variant spreads rapidly, Canadian health experts urge tighter restrictions on mass gatherings

Ontario to speed up COVID-19 booster shots as early as Friday, cut capacity at large sporting events by 50%

Other provinces – such as Alberta and Quebec – have also expanded the availability of rapid antigen tests, viewed by experts as a valuable public-health tool along with other measures to prevent closings, lockdowns and overwhelmed hospitals.

Quebec on Wednesday reported 2,386 new cases of COVID-19, the most in the province since January, as it scrambled to prepare for the spread of the Omicron variant.

Premier François Legault said he was watching the number of hospital admissions before deciding whether to allow private gatherings of up to 20 vaccinated individuals as of Dec. 23, as planned. Quebec has 309 COVID-19 patients in hospital as of Wednesday, far below the province’s peak of more than 1,500 during the height of the second wave in January, 2021.

“We have to continue to study the situation,” the Premier said. “We can’t rule anything out.”

The province also announced this week that Quebeckers would have access to five free rapid tests per person every 30 days through pharmacies as of next Monday. Health Minister Christian Dubé has said that he wants to massively expand eligibility for booster shots to combat Omicron, but that the province needs more vaccination workers before it can increase capacity.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney on Wednesday also announced a program to distribute rapid tests to the public through government sites and pharmacies, while loosening limits on private gatherings ahead of the holidays.

The province’s restrictions on indoor private gatherings had been among the most stringent in the country; unvaccinated people have been prohibited from having anyone at their homes, and vaccinated people were limited to two households.

Now, the limit in Alberta will be 10 people, not including children and regardless of the number of households that represents. The Premier described it as a “modest” change that is still more strict than most other provinces, some of which do not have any restrictions on such gatherings.

Mr. Kenney said the province remains concerned about the Omicron variant and is taking a cautious approach, but he said public-health rules must remain reasonable to ensure public buy-in. He said there is no appetite for harsh lockdown-like restrictions, which he said appeared to be the consensus among premiers during a call with the Prime Minister on Tuesday evening.

The Premier also questioned the value of a federal advisory against international travel, given the measures already in place such as vaccinations for air travellers and masking while en route.

“I think the federal government has to explain how this would meaningfully address community transmission, which is already present with respect to Omicron,” he said.

The travel industry reacted with dismay to the federal Health Minister’s warning to Canadians to cancel their international travel plans as the Omicron variant spreads rapidly.

Judith Coates, a travel adviser and co-founder of the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors, said the renewed advisory comes as clients were booking winter vacations in the tropics.

“We just thought we were getting over the hump of things,” Ms. Coates said.

Tim Perry, a pilot who is president of the international arm of the Air Line Pilots Association, said the government’s advisory and warnings of possible border shutdowns will deepen the airline industry’s financial losses.

WestJet airlines decried the advisory as a “setback” and said vaccinated people should not be “singled out for choosing to take part in a safe activity.”

With reports from Eric Andrew-Gee in Montreal and Eric Atkins in Toronto

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