On Monday, Air Canada, WestJet and Toronto’s Pearson International Airport sent a letter to the federal and Ontario governments, asking for an end to mandatory airport PCR testing for international arrivals. Canada’s two largest airlines and the country’s largest airport have an obvious pecuniary interest in even a small loosening of travel restrictions. But on balance, what they’re proposing also appears to be best for public health.
When Omicron was newly discovered, with few or no cases believed to have yet landed in this country, this page urged the Trudeau government to follow the precautionary principle and tighten things up at the border. We wrote that tough measures might be temporary, but they had to be quick.
“To slow the arrival of more cases of a variant that may be more contagious and also more dangerous,” we wrote on Nov. 30, “shouldn’t Canada trip the circuit breaker and temporarily reinstate travel restrictions – such as requiring all but essential travellers to quarantine for 14 days, plus COVID-19 testing before and after arrival?”
Two days later, with Omicron’s speed and transmissibility becoming ever clearer, we again urged the federal government to act firmly, and move quickly.
“Until we know just how much more infectious and dangerous [Omicron] is … it makes sense to more stringently screen international travellers. … Such steps may only need to be temporary, depending on what is learned about Omicron. But if more is to be done, do it now. Do it now, or don’t bother. … Hesitate, and opportunity is lost.”
Ottawa’s response wasn’t speedy or complete. It announced that all international passengers would be tested on arrival, but despite the obvious urgency, testing ramped up slowly. What’s more, the feds exempted the majority of travellers, namely those arriving from the United States.
Given Omicron’s ultrahigh contagiousness, tougher and earlier border measures might not have much changed the path of Canada’s wave. But in any case, the woulda-coulda-shoulda debate is now academic.
The Public Health Agency of Canada reports that, as of Monday, Canada had a whopping 363,000 active cases of COVID-19. And that’s a count based on limited testing capacity; the real number is higher – probably much higher.
In other words, Canada is already waist-deep in Omicron. The impact of arriving travellers is limited to negligible.
That’s in part because there are other solid border measures in place, which deliver benefits without imposing costs on taxpayers. The first of these is the requirement that most border-crossers be fully vaccinated. Most travellers also must present a valid negative test taken before returning to Canada, with the exception of those making a short visit to the United States.
Faced with the unknown of Omicron in early December, it made sense to add another layer of security at the border, by testing all arrivals on international flights. And if Canada had an unlimited supply of PCR tests, labs and taxpayer dollars – the government is picking up the tab for those airport tests – continuing the program might make sense.
But Canada has a shortage of PCR testing capacity, as anyone who has needed to get tested knows. In many jurisdictions, you’re not eligible unless sick, and tests sometimes take days to turn around. In the meantime, considerable resources are going to screening asymptomatic airport passengers. Pearson airport says that its mandatory testing program uses an average of 8,000 tests a day. The entire province of Ontario is currently administering an average of barely more than 50,000 tests a day.
The Trudeau government may worry that it risks being accused of weakness at the border. It’s been criticized for this in the past by Ontario and at times has deserved it. But public-health measures are supposed to about public health, not about claiming a Tony Award for best political theatre. And this pandemic has too often favoured political theatrics – Ottawa’s eagerness to feed the hysteria surrounding the Sunwing Sinners, for instance – over less dramatic but more substantive steps.
Canada should put in place an extensive program of random PCR screening of international arrivals, to act as an early warning system. But for now, this country’s quest to get through Omicron is largely a domestic fight. It makes sense to concentrate our limited testing resources where they can do the most good.
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