The federal government is readying new travel rules that could be announced as early as Wednesday, after Justin Trudeau met with the premiers to chart a response to the escalation in COVID-19 cases, increasingly driven by the Omicron variant.
The Prime Minister held a call with his provincial and territorial counterparts to brief them on options Ottawa is weighing to make travel more difficult. He was also expected to urge premiers to ramp up their booster campaigns and consider tightening public-health restrictions.
At the same time, premiers are already readying their responses to the fast-spreading Omicron variant. These continue to be a patchwork of different masking, distancing and capacity rules, depending on the jurisdiction.
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.
Chief among the travel changes that the federal government wants to make is the revival of the advisory against non-essential international travel, two senior sources said. That advisory was only lifted in October.
One of the sources said the government was also considering a ban on foreign nationals entering Canada for non-essential travel. A similar ban already prevents foreign nationals from 10 African countries from entering Canada. It has been widely criticized, but the federal government has defended it, saying it stems from advice from the Public Health Agency of Canada that those countries have a higher risk of Omicron.
If implemented, the tougher travel rules could cause massive disruptions just one week before Christmas and as airports have been readying for the busiest travel month since the start of the pandemic.
The sources said the new rules could be announced as early as Wednesday, but they said the Prime Minister wanted to consult with the premiers and the precise timing was not yet confirmed.
The Globe and Mail is not identifying the sources because they were not permitted to disclose the internal deliberations.
The federal government has been steadily ramping up its warnings about international travel since the Omicron variant was first identified in late November. It introduced a raft of new rules at the border, some of which are not yet fully implemented.
“Now is not the time to travel,” Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said in Question Period on Tuesday, as he urged Canadians to get their COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots.
Mr. Duclos told reporters the government is “very concerned” about international travel and fears Canadians could end up “either stranded or sick abroad.”
In Ontario, the province’s top doctor on Tuesday warned that Omicron is spreading among fully vaccinated people and is rapidly becoming the dominant strain in the province.
Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore said each Omicron case infects four to eight times more people than the Delta variant. He said the province’s test positivity rate is at 6.6 per cent, with hospitalizations up 13 per cent over the past week. Although occupancy in intensive-care units remains stable, there is still uncertainty around the variant’s virulence, and it could put more pressure on hospitals, he said.
“Omicron is becoming a game-changer for all of us,” Dr. Moore said at a press conference.
He said he will present the provincial cabinet with recommendations for new rules that will bring a more “consistent” approach across the province, including advice on gathering limits for the holidays. The cabinet will also meet on Wednesday to discuss “dramatically” expanding booster capacity, with an announcement from Premier Doug Ford on the same day. Ontario is expected to mobilize the private sector to increase booster doses for adults and speed up the timeline for shots. Currently, only those 50 and older can book third shots, and the province’s previous plan was to expand boosters to all adults aged 18 and up starting on Jan. 4.
Ontario on Tuesday also announced stricter rules for long-term care homes, including allowing only fully vaccinated visitors to enter homes and requiring twice-weekly testing of fully vaccinated staff, students, volunteers and caregivers.
Also on Tuesday, Daniel Paré, the head of Quebec’s vaccination campaign, said the province will double the number of vaccine doses it can administer per week from 300,000 to 600,000 by January. Quebec will also make five COVID-19 rapid self-tests per month available to all residents. However, Premier François Legault said this week he wasn’t planning to change the province’s indoor gathering limits for the holidays, which will increase from 10 to 20 people starting on Dec. 23.
New Brunswick is already starting the holiday break a week early for Grades 6 and lower and also cut capacity limits for places such as movie theatres. Nova Scotia also announced more restrictions in schools and lower gathering limits, while Prince Edward Island on Tuesday said new restrictions will include a return to a 20-person limit for indoor private gatherings.
In Western Canada, Omicron still makes up just a small percentage of COVID-19 cases, though British Columbia released new modelling data that show it could drive a significant spike in infections.
COVID-19 infections had been steadily declining for months but they have levelled off in recent weeks. The province has been confirming about 400 cases per day. Bonnie Henry, the Provincial Health Officer, released modelling that showed infections could surge to more than 2,000 a day by the end of December.
Dr. Henry did not announce any new public-health restrictions but she encouraged people to get vaccinated and to get a booster shot if they are eligible.
“We so far have seen very mild illness in those people, although it is not innocuous,” said Dr. Henry, adding it’s still a serious illness.
In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney had been expected Tuesday to announce a loosening of limits on private gatherings ahead of the Christmas holiday, along with widespread access to rapid tests, but a news conference was abruptly cancelled to accommodate the meeting with the Prime Minister and other premiers.
Mr. Kenney has argued that many people don’t plan on following the rules anyway, and his own Christmas plans, which include three separate households, are prohibited under the current rules. Right now, private household gatherings are banned for unvaccinated people and limited to two households for vaccinated people.
He said his government would proceed with a “modest, common-sense relaxation” for the holidays. He also planned to make rapid testing widely available.
The province has so far confirmed 30 Omicron cases. Alberta has had some of the highest infection rates through multiple waves of the pandemic and, in the fourth wave, saw its intensive care units overwhelmed with a surge in patients.
Infections had been falling rapidly for more than two months but that has plateaued recently, as have ICU admissions.
With files from Robert Fife and The Canadian Press
For subscribers: Get exclusive political news and analysis by signing up for the Politics Briefing.