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Canadian and American flags fly near the Ambassador Bridge at the Canada-USA border crossing in Windsor, Ont. on March 21, 2020.Rob Gurdebeke/The Canadian Press

Last November, as the pandemic’s second wave began to rise, Ottawa gathered an expert panel to advise on virus testing and screening.

The panel has reported on the best ways to deploy testing, on testing in long-term care homes, and how to test and screen for the virus in schools. Last week, its report on calibrating testing and quarantine at the border landed.

Public attention zoomed in on the panel’s call to scrap the three-day hotel quarantine required of overseas travellers arriving by air.

The mismanaged program, put in place in February after a year of Ottawa sitting on its hands, has never lived up to its billing.

The panel highlighted various problems – including the gaping hole that allows people to skip out by paying a fine, and the fact that its three-day duration is shorter than the virus’s incubation period. The panel instead recommended “a strong focus on adherence to quarantine” outside of a required hotel stay.

This wasn’t a call to stop worrying about the import of the virus and variants across the border. Quite the contrary.

As Canada edges toward all kinds of reopenings in the coming months, it’s important that they be done right. When it comes to the border, the panel’s key message was the need for different rules for people who are vaccinated, and those who are not. It’s all about managing risk.

Similar to the United States and the European Union, the panel recommended that vaccinated travellers – not all travellers – be exempted from quarantine. They would be tested on arrival, for surveillance purposes, but that’s it. The panel called for a system to verify the vaccination status of arrivals – perhaps something like the EU’s digital green certificate, which will be in use as of July 1.

What was missed in the coverage of the call to scrap the hotel quarantine is the fact that the panel underlined the necessity of continued quarantine rules for unvaccinated travellers.

The panel did not propose that the unvaccinated be rewarded with a lightly enforced, on-your-honour home quarantine, or no quarantine at all.

As rules are eased for those who are vaccinated, they will for a time have to remain for those who are not. The goal should be making travel easier for the vaccinated – and more onerous, or at least as onerous as Ottawa originally promised, for the unvaccinated.

This is the approach taken by places such as the Yukon – and soon, in provinces such as Newfoundland and Labrador. Fully vaccinated arrivals will be rewarded with exemptions from quarantine. Unvaccinated people will have to quarantine. The choice is yours.

The reality is that border rules will need to be in place for some time, because of variants of concern. Ottawa has repeatedly pointed to the fact that only 1.6 per cent of arrivals by air since late February tested positive for the virus. That looks low – but as the panel noted, this rate is of people in general, not those who were sick or in contact with someone who was. It’s blanket testing – and in that context, the number is high. The panel said this underscores the ongoing importance of testing on arrival to watch out for variants of concern.

As cases in Canada fall, and with a large majority of Canadians having their first jab, there’s a good feeling that the pandemic is, finally, being beaten back. But one needs to only look at Britain about potential future risks. There, mass vaccination helped drive cases to low levels. In recent days, however, they have ticked up – fuelled by the Delta variant, first associated with India. It has become the dominant form of the virus in Britain, and cases are quickly climbing. What looked like victory is not yet that, and there is a need to keep a careful guard up.

Ottawa made the right move on Thursday by toughening its hotel quarantine system, and not scrapping it. As of June 4, the fine for evading the system will jump to $5,000, from $3,000. The feds may not have always run the hotel quarantine program well, but the basic concept of supervised quarantine is solid. And the $3,000 fine was low enough that, from mid-April to late May, 1,091 people chose to cough up the money rather than follow the rules.

For now, Canada has to stay vigilant at the border. That means easing restrictions on fully vaccinated travellers, while tightening the rules for those who are not.

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