After weeks – or is it months – of mulling and vaguely threatening that Canada will crack down on international travellers, the federal government has finally decided to take action.
The short version of the anti-climactic announcement made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday was that no one should plan to spend March Break on the beach in the Caribbean or Mexico.
More specifically, the airlines – Air Canada, WestJet, Sunwing, Air Transat – will voluntarily stop selling vacation packages for the period Jan. 31 to April 30.
“We all agree that now is not the time to be flying,” Mr. Trudeau said earnestly.
But that raises the question: Was it a good time to be flying in December or September or since March, 2020, for that matter? Thousands of people travelled to places like Cayo Coco and Cozumel with impunity even though, on paper, only essential travel was allowed. Is sipping mojitos and getting a tan included in the definition of “essential”?
While the PM praised the airlines, these same companies have been heavily advertising sun packages during a lockdown, which is hardly responsible corporate behaviour.
Beach vacations aside, travel to and from the rest of the world will continue. From all appearances, you can still go to Florida or the Côte d’Azur if you’re determined to get some winter sun, and you will be only slightly more inconvenienced upon your return.
Ottawa recently decided that international travellers needed a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight to Canada. Now, in addition, all those who enter Canada (including returning Canadians) will undergo mandatory coronavirus testing and be housed in quarantine hotels until they get test results.
That, we’re told, is going to take three days although, theoretically, you can get PCR test results in a few hours.
Mr. Trudeau warned that travellers will have to pay for the accommodation themselves and that will cost about $2,000. At roughly $666 a night, one hopes these are pretty fancy digs. (Government officials said the costs were not unreasonable because they include not only the room but food, security, testing and more – but no caviar.)
If nothing else, the costs should be dissuasive, and that’s the idea.
The initial quarantine will also be followed by the rest of the mandatory 14-day self-isolation at home – including a second test at day 10. Anecdotally, this is not being enforced very strictly now, but the PM vowed to get tough, but without providing details.
It’s worth noting too that, if a traveller tests positive during the initial waiting period, they will be moved to a separate quarantine facility and will undergo more detailed testing to ensure they are not infected with a variant. This cost will be borne by government.
The impetus for these new rules was twofold: Provinces were complaining that Ottawa was not doing enough to control foreign travel. The barrage of stories about politicians and other public officials, not to mention people seeing their neighbours jetting off to far-away locales, rankled members of the public that were under lockdown and quarantine.
Still, only about 2 per cent of new cases now originate in international travellers.
The new measures are mostly symbolic. We are decreeing that those who can afford to travel cannot be allowed to do so during a lockdown, at least easily or cheaply.
The other thing that finally pushed a reluctant federal government to impose new travel restrictions was the threat of new coronavirus variants.
But it’s not entirely clear that the new rules will have a big impact. Variants are not spreading wildly in Caribbean countries, and Canada has not banned flights or travellers from countries where they are, such as Britain, Brazil and South Africa.
The grim reality, too, is that the variants have already arrived in Canada. To date, there are 85 confirmed cases of the B.1.1.7 variant (which was first flagged in Britain) and nine cases of the B.188.8.131.52 variant (which seems to have originated in South Africa), and no known cases yet of P1 variant (which has a foothold in Brazil).
What we’re doing with the new travel rules is half-closing the barn door while horses are already galloping away, and promising to round them up eventually.
Sadly, reactive, not proactive, has been the Canadian way throughout the pandemic.
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