Skip to main content

People line up to get on the Air France flight to Paris at the O.R. Tambo airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Nov. 26.Jerome Delay/The Associated Press

The federal government is reassessing its travel ban on 10 African countries, as one of Canada’s top doctors said he couldn’t explain the rationale for the measure and another said it should be re-examined.

For weeks, Canada has faced international condemnation for the ban it imposed on foreign nationals from 10 African countries and its requirement that COVID-19 tests be conducted in countries other than those nations. The federal government said the rules were justified because there was more spread of the Omicron variant in those countries, less reliable domestic surveillance and a higher test positivity rate among travellers arriving from those countries.

But on Tuesday, the Public Health Agency of Canada said it couldn’t provide the test positivity data to back that up. The Globe and Mail asked for the data for all countries under the travel ban as well as from other countries, such as Britain, which is not under any additional travel restrictions despite declaring an Omicron-driven state of emergency.

Canada reimposes advisory against all non-essential international travel

Ottawa drops COVID-19 travel rule that rejected South African tests

On Wednesday, Britain dropped its ban on African countries. Canada’s current rules keep the ban in place until Jan. 31. Asked at a press conference Wednesday to explain the rationale for keeping Canada’s ban, deputy chief public health officer Howard Njoo said: “I’m not saying there’s a rationale one way or the other.”

Canada first imposed the rule on seven African countries on Nov. 26 and then expanded it to 10 countries on Nov. 30 – South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Namibia, Nigeria, Malawi and Egypt.

The federal government also requires travellers who are allowed to still enter Canada from those countries to get a negative COVID-19 test in a third country before boarding – which travellers say has made getting to Canada next to impossible. Over the weekend, the government suspended that requirement for South Africa.

Last week, The Globe reported that Canada was the only country among Group of Seven nations that had the additional third-country test requirement as part of its travel bans.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and other critics have described the Western bans as “travel apartheid.” And World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the rules disappointing.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra during Question Period in Ottawa on Dec. 7. 'It was not put out of malice or punitive measures, this was based on data,' Mr. Alghabra said about the travel ban, which he said has previously been applied to India, Britain and Morocco.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said Wednesday the government is reassessing the rules but wasn’t yet ready to make an announcement.

“It was not put out of malice or punitive measures, this was based on data,” Mr. Alghabra said about the ban, which he said has previously been applied to India, Britain and Morocco. “Yes, we are currently reassessing that, and I can assure you we will act as quickly as possible.”

Dr. Njoo, along with Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam, are the federal government’s lead advisers on the COVID-19 response. Dr. Tam on Wednesday called the current bans “a policy that needs to be revisited.”

“We do have our postarrival tests and we have detected a higher positivity rate from certain countries, amongst the 10,” she said. “But I think it is very important for us to re-examine that policy.”

As Omicron pops up in Canada, several other countries, danger of vaccine inequity comes into focus

The higher test positivity rates have been one of the main explanations she and the government have pointed at to defend the travel ban.

“We have this postarrival testing and, from that, we could detect that there’s been a rise in positivity rate. For example, from Egypt and from Nigeria,” Dr. Tam said on Nov. 30 to explain the travel ban.

The government has not released those data. The Globe asked for the data on Tuesday, as well as the same data for other countries, that are exempt from the ban, to compare the rates. On Wednesday, Public Health Agency of Canada spokesperson Tammy Jarbeau said it couldn’t provide the information because it wasn’t statistically significant.

“The mandatory random testing of vaccinated travellers is not designed to have sufficient statistical power to provide estimates of positivity rates by country of origin,” Ms. Jarbeau said.

The Globe asked the agency to clarify its response given past statements from Dr. Tam and to provide the statistics she has been referencing. The public-health agency said it would not be able to provide a response until Thursday at the earliest.

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.