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An Air Canada plane flies over hotels near Pearson International Airport on Feb. 22, 2021.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

As a way to disincentivize non-essential travel, the federal government’s new rule requiring a three-day hotel stay for international travellers actually makes sense. Not only will many potential jet-setters balk at spending upwards of $2,000 on three days in an airport hotel (though the actual costs appear to be much lower), but surely the prospect of wasting hours on a government-run hotline to book a quarantine reservation is unpalatable enough to keep most Canadians at home. Indeed, only a masochist would willingly put himself or herself in a position to hear “We are experiencing higher call volumes than normal” for several hours straight.

To that end, the new policy, which just came into effect this week, just might prove effective in dissuading some casual vacationers from leaving the country. But as a public-health measure – a way to “keep Canadians safe,” as citizens continue to travel for work, school or family reunification – the hotel quarantine program doesn’t appear to have been designed with actual evidence in mind.

The most obvious limitation is the length of stay: three days, enough time to process the PCR test international travellers will now be required to take upon arrival (on top of the proof of a negative test result within 72 hours of boarding the plane), but not long enough to ensure that a potential infection is caught. Various meta-analyses have pegged the incubation period of SARS-CoV-2 to be around five to seven days, meaning that an exposure that occurred before departure or on the plane probably wouldn’t be caught by the PCR test at arrival, and might not cause symptoms until the traveller is given the all-clear to return home (where they must complete the remainder of their 14-day quarantine). Canadian snowbirds who received both doses of their vaccinations abroad weeks ago still have to submit to testing and pay for three days in quarantine, despite early evidence that it is extremely unlikely they will transmit the virus.

There is no comprehensive, controlled plan for moving international travellers from the airport to their quarantine hotels. They can take their own cars if they are parked at the airport and also pinky promise not to stop anywhere along the way. Or they can take taxis or limousines and potentially expose a new person on the route. Or they can take communal shuttles from the airport to the government-approved hotels, which are permitted to host both regular (domestic) travellers and travellers required to quarantine, just as long as the cohorts are on separate floors and elevators. The responsibility to make sure that these cohorts do not mix and that international travellers stay in their rooms is left to the hotel and its staff, who hopefully paid attention during crash courses on preventing the spread of infectious diseases.

Australia’s hotel-quarantine program, which has been in place for nearly a year and is much more thorough than Canada’s program (travellers must stay inside for at least 14 days and are not permitted to go outside even for smoke breaks, unlike in Canada), has still seen some leaks. In December, an airport-van driver tested positive for COVID-19 after transporting a family to a quarantine hotel. In response, New South Wales has started requiring drivers to take daily saliva tests, on top of previously required weekly nose or throat swabs. In January, a woman who travelled from Malaysia tested negative on days three and 11 of her stay, but then tested positive with the same strain of the virus as a family from Nigeria staying on the same floor. The working theory is that the virus was carried through the air when the occupants opened their doors to receive their meals at the same time, which is why Australian quarantine hotels now stagger their meal delivery times.

The Canadian government doesn’t appear to have factored these and other lessons from Australia into its hotel-quarantine program. Essential workers such as truck drivers and health care professionals will be exempt from the hotel requirement (the Canada Border Services Agency says that nearly 75 per cent of travellers who have crossed into Canada since the start of the pandemic qualify as essential), as will anyone arriving by land – which might mean American airports within driving distance to the border will start seeing a new wave of Canadian arrivals.

Those who don’t find a loophole will be forced to oblige by Canada’s half-baked, leaky and largely performative three-day hotel program, which is at once not strict enough to meaningfully control the potential influx of infection but still intrusive enough to raise serious constitutional questions, particularly amid a lack of public-health evidence for its construction. This program might be successful in deterring a few spur-of-the-moment trips to Palm Springs, but based on its many apparent opportunities for contagion, that might be about all it will do.

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