Canada will end its pre-entry COVID-19 testing requirement for all fully vaccinated travellers in two weeks after facing intense pressure from business and tourism groups to ease border restrictions.
A federal source said the rule will be lifted on April 1, but that on-arrival random testing will remain in effect to track new variants. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the source because they were not permitted to disclose government plans.
People who travel internationally risk getting stuck abroad if their prearrival test is positive under the current rules. The coming change won’t help families returning home in the March break travel rush, who will still need to get tested before their arrival in Canada.
Business and tourism groups say the testing requirement has taken Canada out of the running as a destination for vacation and business travel. Countries such as Britain have already removed any testing requirements but the United States still requires a negative antigen test for vaccinated travellers who arrive in the U.S. by air.
Canadian Chamber of Commerce president Perrin Beatty said the expected change is great news for an industry that has lost an enormous amount of business because of the pandemic. In an interview from Dubai, where he was travelling for business meetings on Wednesday, Mr. Beatty said the change will ensure Canada is again an option for big industry events and other travel.
“This will help to level the playing field for us and it gives hope that we’ll be able to salvage this tourism season even if we lost the last one.”
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Tourism Minister Randy Boissonnault will formally announce the change on Thursday.
Currently, fully vaccinated travellers are required to present proof of a negative test result from a professionally administered antigen test. The antigen test requirement replaced the rule for a more costly and time-consuming molecular test in February. In the past month, the government also lifted its advisory against non-essential travel and ended the mandatory on-arrival test and isolation requirement for vaccinated individuals.
The government defended introducing those rules, and keeping them in place for much of the winter, because the Omicron wave also drove a spike in breakthrough infections. Border testing of fully vaccinated people had a positivity rate of 0.2 per cent in the fall. That shot up to 9.3 per cent in early January but by the end of February had fallen again. The most recent numbers from the Public Health Agency of Canada show positivity among vaccinated travellers was at 1.4 per cent at the end of February.
Last week, the Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable urged the federal government to remove the pre-entry testing requirement, which it called a “non-science-based” obstacle to international travel.
Airlines opposed the testing requirements as bad for business and a hurdle to a recovery in seat sales two years into the pandemic. And travellers complained about the logistical difficulties, time constraints and expense of obtaining the tests.
Demand for air travel plummeted beginning in March, 2020, as the pandemic took hold around the world. Most airlines grounded their fleets as governments closed borders, and imposed testing and quarantine requirements on those who did travel. Lately, Canadian airlines have been rehiring employees and adding routes for the coming months, as travellers show they are eager to take vacations and visit family and friends.
“I can hear a collective sigh of relief across the country,” said Barry Prentice, a transportation professor at the University of Manitoba.
Given the prevalence of COVID-19 in Canada and the rest of the world, Prof. Prentice said the tests had lost their ability to guard against new outbreaks. “It’s not like anybody’s going to bring anything new to us that we don’t already have,” Prof. Prentice said.
However, one of the reasons why public-health experts championed the restrictions at the border was to slow or prevent the arrival of new variants of COVID-19.
The airline industry, which has lobbied for Canada to relax its COVID-19 border rules, welcomed the news of the government’s pending announcement. Brad Cicero, a spokesperson for Toronto’s Porter Airlines, said it “will be a significant improvement for all travellers by making entry to Canada much simpler and less costly.”
“Business travellers can also realistically plan same-day trips to key nearby markets in Boston, Chicago and New York that we serve from Toronto. This is logistically difficult with existing testing requirements,” he said.
Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said Canada’s largest airline cheers any move that removes restrictions and encourages travel without compromising safety.
“This would benefit not only carriers but also the entire tourism and hospitality industry, which is a key economic driver in Canada,” he said.
Stephen Jones, chief executive officer of Flair Airlines, called Ottawa’s move a “significant milestone in what we hope will be the end phase of COVID.”
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