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Manitoba Health Minister Heather Stefanson, right, looks on as Premier Brian Pallister speaks to media following a tour of the new COVID-19 immunization supersite in Brandon, Man., Jan. 13, 2021.Tim Smith/The Canadian Press

Manitoba’s decision to broaden domestic travel restrictions this week, as COVID-19 variants spread and Canada’s vaccine delivery slows, is adding pressure to provinces that say they cannot legally limit the mobility of Canadians.

Just last week, B.C. Premier John Horgan said he could not impose travel restrictions, based on legal advice. On Wednesday, he said his office is seeking details of the Manitoba plan while his province updates its pandemic modelling in the coming days.

Manitoba, which has had limited restrictions in place since June, will now require all domestic travellers to self-isolate for 14 days after entering the province. “This is being done out of an abundance of caution to protect Manitobans,” Premier Brian Pallister said Tuesday.

Mr. Horgan, speaking to reporters on Wednesday, maintains his province faces more challenging logistics because it has a greater number of transit points by land and air than Manitoba. However, he said he has not ruled out similar controls. “Last week there was not evidence that interprovincial travel was contributing to a significant increase in case loads, in locations where people from outside of British Columbia have congregated,” Mr. Horgan told reporters Wednesday. “If we see an increase in the number of people from outside of British Columbia is contributing significantly to the increase in community outbreaks, we’ll take action.” Meanwhile, he continued to urge Canadians to avoid all non-essential travel.

Dr. Kelley Lee, a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University who specializes in cross-border measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, said other provinces should not wait any longer to copy the Manitoba example.

“There is a lot to like about the Manitoba policy,” she said. “They got away from the idea of travel bans and they create a disincentive for non-essential travel.”

Dr. Lee said the discovery of COVID-19 variants, which appear to be more easily transmissible, has created a new urgency. “The new variants have spread like wildfire, we know the vaccination is delayed – this couldn’t come at a worst time,” she said. “Time is not on our side here.”

Earlier this week, B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry reported that both the British and South African variants of COVID-19 have been detected in the province. “This leaves us at a precipice, at a brink where we can see rapid takeoff, particularly if we start to see any of these new variants starting to transmit in our community,” Dr. Henry warned.

Ontario has not indicated it will follow Manitoba’s lead, but it is urging returning citizens to self-quarantine if they travel.

“We are strongly recommending that anyone returning to Ontario from out-of-province travel should self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival. Regardless, everyone should be staying home as much as possible right now,” Ivana Yelich, a spokesperson for Ontario Premier Doug Ford, said in a statement.

Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro said his government isn’t considering following Manitoba’s lead. “We know that there is travel that needs to be made through provinces,” Mr. Shandro said. “We’re not looking at advocating for any changes to interprovincial travel at this time. … The main goal is [to] make sure that we limit community spread of COVID throughout our provinces, throughout the country, but doing it in ways that are smart and thoughtful.”

Most provinces have opted to urge residents to avoid non-essential travel, without imposing legal measures. That is in part because Canadians have a constitutional right to mobility within the country.

Atlantic Canada, however, has kept tight restrictions on interprovincial travel since the pandemic began, and it’s been largely credited with keeping infection rates down in the region. With few exceptions, anyone entering the four eastern provinces must preregister and self-isolate for two weeks.

“It’s been a very effective policy, and I think we’ve been able to demonstrate that quite clearly,” said Susan Kirkland, an epidemiologist from Dalhousie University in Halifax. “We don’t have the hospital infrastructure here to absorb a big surge in cases, so we knew we had to act early and act hard to avoid getting into that situation.”

With files from Greg Mercer and James Keller

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