The federal government is reimposing its advisory against all non-essential international travel as it tries to stop the growth of the Omicron variant, but it stopped short of imposing more significant restrictions that were also under consideration.
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced the new travel advisory on Wednesday, just 10 days before Christmas and as airports were expecting December to be the busiest month yet since the start of the pandemic.
“To those who were planning to travel, I say very clearly: Now is not the time to travel,” Mr. Duclos said.
The rapid spread of the Omicron variant on a global scale “makes us fear the worst for Canadians,” he said, noting that people who travel abroad risk being stranded there as Canada and other countries continue to change their travel rules.
Mr. Duclos said the official advisory will be posted on the federal government’s travel website within hours.
The government is also going to further expand its on-arrival testing and isolation rules, which so far are only being randomly applied to air travellers. Ottawa has said it will be made universal to all air travellers from outside the United States, but it hasn’t yet said when that will happen.
Getting booster shots in arms and expanding the use of rapid tests will be critical, Mr. Duclos said. The Health Minister said the government has already made 85 million rapid tests available to provinces and territories and an extra 35 million are being delivered.
He also said the government has 16 million booster doses available in stock and more will be arriving in the next few weeks.
Ottawa first changed travel rules to respond to the emergence of the Omicron variant in late November. Since then it has been warning that more changes could be coming.
On Tuesday, two senior sources told The Globe and Mail the government was planning new rules to make travel more difficult. After a morning cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also briefed the premiers on the options under consideration.
As of Tuesday, the sources said the government had considered implementing a travel ban on all foreign nationals, reviving its advisory against all non-essential travel including for vaccinated people, and imposing a two-week quarantine or isolation requirement. The Globe is not identifying the sources because they were not permitted to disclose the internal deliberations.
Governments are scrambling to respond to Omicron because data from other countries indicate it is more transmissible than other variants of COVID-19 among the unvaccinated as well as vaccinated individuals with low immunity.
Medical experts say that even if Omicron leads to less severe illness, the sheer numbers could spark a surge in hospitalizations among unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people. In the last seven days, cases in Canada have increased by 33 per cent but so far hospitalizations, which are a lagging indicator, have increased by just 3 per cent.
On Tuesday, a report released by a major South African health insurer said that early data show the Pfizer vaccine is less effective against the new Omicron coronavirus variant but still provides relatively strong protection against severe illness and hospitalization from the variant.
Editor’s note: A previous version this story incorrectly stated that 95 million rapid tests have been delivered. So far 85 million rapid tests have been delivered. The story has been updated to reflect this change. The Globe regrets this error.
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