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An Air Canada flight flies in over hotels by the Pearson International Airport in Mississauga, Ont. by the Pearson International Airport on Feb. 22, 2021 as new air travel rules come into effect in Canada.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

It is embarrassing at this point that Canada’s government persists with the charade that its hotel quarantine program for international travellers is in any way mandatory, serious or science-based.

It is not, and has never been, compulsory or universal. International travellers can fly into border cities in the U.S. and enter Canada by land, rendering them exempt from the hotel requirement – a loophole the government hasn’t remedied in the more than three months since it first announced the program.

Roughly 30 per cent of international air travellers have been exempt from the hotel requirement, according to figures first provided to the National Post by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). PHAC would only say generally why nearly 88,000 international arrivals between Feb. 22 and May 4 were not required to stay in government-authorized hotels – reasons that may have included that they were providing or receiving medical care, providing essential services or working in the transportation sector.

Travellers who have been required to report to hotel quarantine facilities but chose to go home instead are only being ticketed in two of the four Canadian cities currently accepting international arrivals (unless, apparently, they have access to a private plane, in which case they can land in other cities that don’t have hotel quarantine programs). Alberta hasn’t signed onto the Contraventions Act, meaning that police are not issuing tickets for those breaching the Quarantine Act in Calgary; Quebec, which did adopt the act, has nevertheless not issued a single fine or ticket for those skipping hotel quarantine in Montreal as of last week. Meanwhile, tickets are being issued in Toronto and Vancouver, but recipients likely have decent grounds to challenge the fines based on the outcome of the Canadian Constitution Foundation’s case over the constitutionality of the program. They could even try to convey to ticketing officers that they genuinely believe they would be safer at home than in a hotel.

There are good reasons for them to feel that way. COVID-19 outbreaks among staff have been declared at three Toronto hotel quarantine facilities within the last two weeks, which is not unexpected when hotel workers are suddenly supposed to be experts in infectious disease control.

Unlike in Australia, where quarantine hotel staff have been prioritized to be among the first to receive its limited vaccine supply, Canada has left vaccine rollout to the provinces, which have not distinguished hotel quarantine staff from other employees who cannot work from home. Hotels are supposed to be periodically monitored for compliance by PHAC, but they are nevertheless still seeing guests arrive after being crammed into the same shuttle buses, then congregating in the same lobbies, then sharing the same elevators. Many of the windows in guest rooms in these hotels do not open, meaning guests who want fresh air have to hop in those same elevators, again. In Australia, those in quarantine cannot leave their hotel rooms to go outside for any reason. In Britain, they may go outside, but only with a security escort. In Canada, they can largely do whatever they please, even though outdoor time is supposed to be “monitored.” Yet, even with its much stricter rules and oversight, occasional breaches have happened in Australia, including those involving security guards who may have been infected simply by monitoring corridors. This bodes poorly for Canada’s slapdash effort to create a shorter, looser, less controlled copycat scheme.

Indeed, a three-day hotel quarantine program never was and still is not grounded in the science of what we know about COVID-19 incubation and spread. Air travellers who were infected at their departure or arrival airports – or worse, at the hotel quarantine facility – may not develop symptoms until after they leave. PHAC spokesperson Tammy Jarbeau told me that “a majority” of international travellers who test positive were indeed staying at a government-authorized hotel when they tested positive, but when asked to provide a figure for that majority, she merely said it was “more than half.” Nevertheless, we know that the program was unsuccessful in preventing the B.1.617 variant, first identified in India, from cropping up in various provinces, even though the program was announced to specifically prevent the introduction of new variants in Canada. And on the matter of science: despite the documented efficacy of vaccination, Canada still does not exempt fully vaccinated travellers from its hotel quarantine – even though people who, say, left the country for a funeral may be able to bypass the hotel requirement on compassionate grounds.

There might have been marginal value in the program as a deterrent to international travel months ago. But now, when travellers from the U.S. likely have greater access to vaccination than Canadians at home, when domestic flights are carrying the majority of COVID-19-positive passengers and when the hotels themselves are grappling with outbreaks, the program’s usefulness is nearly impossible to see. In fact, it might be doing more harm than good. Forcing only some travellers into poorly supervised hotels for too-short quarantines never really made sense, but now it’s a potentially harmful joke. Canada should scrap the program for good.

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