The federal government is getting ready to impose stricter travel rules as it tries to prevent a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by new, more transmissible variants, and clamp down on March Break travel.
Four sources in government and industry told The Globe and Mail that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet debated new measures at its Monday evening meeting. Options on the table ranged from relatively small changes, such as increasing the number of people dedicated to enforcing the 14-day quarantine, to requiring all returning non-essential travellers to quarantine at a government-designated hotel at their own expense.
At the more extreme end is a possible ban on non-essential travel for Canadian citizens and permanent residents – which Quebec Premier François Legault called for last week. The government is not keen to impose the latter rule because it could require Mr. Trudeau to invoke the Emergencies Act.
The Globe and Mail is not identifying the individuals because they were not permitted to publicly discuss the private deliberations. One source with direct knowledge said the issue was debated at cabinet’s COVID-19 committee but ministers in the smaller group could not reach a consensus on which new rules to impose.
Calls for tougher travel measures have been growing as scientists warn of the risk posed by new and more transmissible variants of the coronavirus, including those discovered in Britain, South Africa and Brazil.
“Ideally, we would have done these things months ago,” said Jeff Kwong, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “If we’re not going to take these [new variants] seriously now, then when?”
The federal government has already banned non-essential entry into the country for non-citizens and non-residents, but there are several exceptions to the rule. Other than essential workers, such as truck drivers, everyone crossing into Canada must isolate for 14 days.
The possible new rules that cabinet is now weighing have already been in place for months in countries like New Zealand and Australia, which have been global leaders in curtailing the spread of the virus.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters in Ottawa on Monday that the government is “very actively” looking at more stringent measures.
“Given the virulence of the virus in the world today our government absolutely is looking seriously and carefully at measures to further guarantee the toughness of our border measures,” she said.
The heightened concern is supported by new epidemiological models from scientists at Simon Fraser University, which project daily case counts could far outpace the records set in the current wave of the pandemic if a new variant takes hold in the general population.
On Monday, provinces recorded dozens of cases of the new variants of COVID-19. Some were linked to travel but others are from community spread: B.C. reported nine cases, Alberta reported 25 cases and Ontario reported at least 34 cases.
Evidence indicates the variant from Britain, known as B.1.1.7, spreads more easily and is linked to an increase in the severity of COVID-19.
That variant is tied to a catastrophic outbreak in a long-term care facility in Barrie, Ont., where 45 people had died and more than 200 residents and staff have contracted COVID-19, as of Monday. Health officials believe the outbreak was set off by contact with a single individual who travelled internationally.
“Those deaths were all preventable,” Dr. Kwong said.
He is one of more than 100 Canadian scientists and physicians calling for more stringent control and monitoring of travel. They say the governments should “strongly” consider mandatory quarantine hotels for all returning travellers – a measure that would have stopped the Barrie outbreak from happening, Dr. Kwong said.
Caroline Colijn, a professor and mathematician who led the modelling work, said if the variants take hold in Canada, the government may need to rethink vaccination strategies so that those most likely to transmit the virus asymptomatically move higher up the priority list. The scientists are also recommending that the hundreds of thousands of truck drivers who regularly cross the Canada-U.S. border receive vaccination as well as all essential workers at border crossings.
As of Jan. 7, Ottawa required all travellers flying into Canada to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test, taken within three days of travelling. Since then, the Canada Border Services Agency has tracked a 33-per-cent drop in international arrivals by air. The agency cautioned that a natural drop in travel at this time of year means the entire drop likely isn’t linked to the new rule.
The change is expected to exacerbate the conditions that airlines are trying to operate in. Since the government imposed the testing rule, 50,000 trips have been cancelled, sources said. The number is in line with what Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos told the French CBC last week.
Airlines have called for the government to introduce a system of testing at airports that would allow for a shorter quarantine period without making travel more difficult.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford called for stricter travel measures on Monday, as did mayors for some of the province’s most populous cities. According to data released by the province, 2.26 per cent of 6,850 passengers tested at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport were positive for COVID-19 and four of those cases are suspected variants. Other data collected by the province in December show people are not following the current 14-day quarantine rule, which has little enforcement.
On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned Canadians and permanent residents travelling abroad that Ottawa could introduce rules that “significantly impede your ability to return to Canada at any given moment without warning.”
Mr. Trudeau could announce the changes as early as his Tuesday press conference, but three of the sources said they were uncertain whether cabinet would reach a decision before then. Two of the sources said concerns among cabinet ministers centre on the immense logistical and human resource challenge of requiring people flying to Canada to quarantine at hotels and the legal process needed to ban non-essential travel for Canadians and permanent residents.
Invoking the Emergencies Act, the successor to the War Measures Act, isn’t politically palatable for the Liberals. However, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said it believes the government could enforce the changes in a new law, rather than through the existing act.
No matter what restrictions the government chooses, Cara Zwibel, a director with the association, said Ottawa would have to justify the infringement on the Charter-protected right “to enter, remain in and leave Canada.” She said so far she hasn’t seen evidence that would justify stricter measures.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Monday his party supports stricter measures and would consider government legislation, if it’s introduced. Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said he is open to new restrictions, but didn’t specify which ones.
In New Zealand, the government requires travellers to book a spot at a managed isolation and quarantine facility. A website shows they are booked solid until March 5. New Zealanders are also facing steep costs for the mandatory two-week stay; $2,813.25 is charged to the first person staying in a room.
With reports from Robert Fife, Laura Stone, Oliver Moore, James Keller and Andrea Woo.
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