Health Minister Patty Hajdu is now exercising powers afforded to her under the Quarantine Act to force travellers returning from other countries to adhere to a 14-day self-isolation period upon their arrival.
The legislation, which grants sweeping powers to the minister, is designed to protect public health through measures to prevent the introduction and spread of communicable diseases.
At an Ottawa news conference on Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said complying with the quarantine period will be a “legal obligation."
Until now, the government has issued advice to travellers returning to Canada that they need to self-isolate.
“We have decided now is the time to make that measure mandatory,” Ms. Freeland said, adding the measure was the subject of discussion at a recent special cabinet committee on addressing the coronavirus.
As of midnight Wednesday, anyone arriving to Canada by air, sea or land, whether they have signs and symptoms of the novel coronavirus, will be required to self-isolate for two-weeks’ time, the Canada Border Services Agency confirmed on Wednesday.
In a statement released Wednesday, the government said that spot checks will be conducted and that the maximum penalties would include a fine of up to $750,000 and/or imprisonment for six months.
It also said that a “person who causes a risk of imminent death or serious bodily harm to another person while wilfully or recklessly contravening this Act or the regulations could be liable for a fine of up to $1,000,000 or to imprisonment of up to three years, or to both.”
Workers deemed essential by the federal government are excluded from the measure, Ms. Freeland said, adding the contact information of travellers will now be collected by border officials so they can follow up to confirm people are complying with the law.
Ms. Hajdu also said Wednesday the federal government is ordering returning passengers to not take public transit to return home from the airport. Ottawa is looking into how it could help facilitate transportation for those who do not have private options, she said.
Ms. Hajdu also said the government is exploring ways to ensure that those who live with vulnerable people, such as the elderly or those at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus due to having suppressed immune systems, have alternative places to stay if “that’s their only choice.”
Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Howard Njoo said Wednesday that the government’s announcement is "an appropriate step” to help protect Canadians.
The federal Conservatives have previously called on the Liberal government to make the isolation period mandatory for travellers. On Wednesday, NDP health critic Don Davies said his party also believes it makes sense for Ottawa to bring in stronger rules given that some Canadians are still ignoring the recommendation from health experts.
Steven Hoffman, the director of the Global Strategy Lab and a professor of global health, law and political science at York University, said Wednesday he sees Ottawa’s announcement as a sign it does not believe enough Canadians were following its call to adhere to a 14-day self-isolation after travel, or that the risk was sufficiently high that it needed to use the full legal force available to it.
The enforcement of the mass quarantine order will require a “massive logistical effort," Dr. Hoffman added.
On Wednesday, the Alberta government also announced fines of up to $1,000 for international travellers who don’t immediately self-isolate after arriving in the province, as well as people who have tested positive for COVID-19 or their close contacts and anyone with symptoms.
Saskatchewan previously announced it would impose $2,000 on returning international travellers who don’t immediate self-isolate for 14 days and used the provincial emergency system to broadcast warnings to cellphones.
Ontario and Newfoundland have since announced their own fines, set at $1,000 and $2,500, respectively. Nova Scotia is threatening fines of $1,000 for people and $7,500 for businesses who violate a prohibition on gatherings of more than five people.
Police in Newfoundland and Quebec have arrested people accused of violating self-isolation orders.
-With files from James Keller in Calgary
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