The federal government unveiled plans Wednesday to ease border restrictions in early July for fully vaccinated Canadians and permanent residents, but acknowledged a national vaccine passport system in the works to verify that people have been immunized won’t be ready in time.
The changes also mean qualifying travellers who arrive by air can skip government-mandated quarantine hotels.
Starting early next month, fully vaccinated Canadians, permanent residents and other essential travellers will be subject to a far shorter quarantine – measured in days, not weeks – as long as they test negative for COVID-19, Ottawa announced Wednesday. The new rules will apply to people who travel to Canada more than two weeks after their final shot, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said.
The loosening of restrictions are only a first step and do not change how unvaccinated or partly vaccinated travellers will be treated. The government also made no changes to who is allowed entry to Canada – currently only Canadians, permanent residents and those undertaking essential travel are permitted.
Dominic LeBlanc, Minster of Intergovernmental Affairs, also cautioned the changes will only be implemented if new COVID-19 case counts keep dropping and the vaccination effort “continues to go well.”
Ms. Hajdu did not provide an exact date for the revised rules, saying Ottawa is still working with the Canada Border Services Agency and the federal immigration department on an implementation plan.
“The general ballpark is the first week of July,” Ms. Hajdu said Wednesday when pressed by reporters for a more specific timeline. “It is better now to be slow and cautious and use best science and evidence … rather than rapidly moving and seeing outbreaks or cases surging in a way that would result in further restrictions.”
The changes don’t reflect the advice given last month by a government-appointed expert panel, which recommended only one screening test on arrival for fully vaccinated individuals and no quarantine whatsoever. The same panel recommended that partly vaccinated people only have to quarantine until they receive a negative test result and that the mandatory quarantine hotels be phased out for all travellers.
Only vaccines approved in Canada will be accepted when determining whether an incoming traveller counts as fully vaccinated. The approved list does not include Russian- or Chinese-made vaccines used elsewhere in the world, but Ottawa said it will continue evaluating other vaccines for possible approval.
Currently, Canadians or permanent residents who are non-essential travellers are required to quarantine for 14 days upon their return in Canada. People who arrive by air must stay at a quarantine hotel for up to three days or face a heavy fine.
According to The Globe and Mail’s tracking, 9 per cent of Canadians are fully vaccinated and another 54 per cent have received their first shot. The number of double-dosed individuals is expected to rise quickly as provincial vaccination campaigns continue. On Wednesday, Procurement Minister Anita Anand said the country will have enough shots by the end of July to fully vaccinate 80 per cent of the eligible population.
Mr. LeBlanc said Ottawa is working with the provinces to develop “a kind of vaccine passport” for Canadians travelling abroad to easily verify they are fully vaccinated. But this new proof-of-vaccination credential won’t be ready by early July, when travel restrictions are now set to ease.
Mr. LeBlanc said there would be an interim means for border guards to determine who qualifies as fully vaccinated, adding there would be “flexibility for Canadians to show they are fully vaccinated” at the start.
“The border agents will have everything they need to ensure there are temporary measures until the national vaccination evidence or vaccine passport is ready,” Mr. LeBlanc said.
An interim arrangement is still being hammered out for scrutinizing proof of vaccination. A senior federal source said the government expects the process to verify vaccinations will be similar to the system currently used for proof of COVID-19 testing. Travellers would upload vaccination-related documents to the ArriveCAN software application before departing and the information will be subsequently screened. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the person because they were not authorized to discuss the internal deliberations.
Travellers whose vaccination documents are not in French or English will need to pay for an official translation of the documents, the source said. If there is any doubt about the credibility of the documents, the traveller would be directed to a government-sanctioned quarantine hotel.
The source said the government is still finalizing specific requirements for children under 12 (who do not yet qualify for a vaccine), who are travelling with fully vaccinated parents. Currently the rules exempt unaccompanied minors from the mandatory hotel quarantine.
At least 25 countries, including France, Spain and Denmark, have announced border reopening plans for vaccinated travellers from some countries. In many cases, countries are requiring a negative COVID-19 test and official proof of vaccination, while some are allowing unvaccinated travellers, provided they test negative for COVID-19.
Prabmeet Singh Sarkaria, Ontario’s Minister for Small Business and a provincial spokesman for border restrictions, said Wednesday that Queen’s Park remains concerned that a relaxing of travel restrictions could lead to an influx of new COVID-19 cases. He called on the federal government to better enforce mandatory quarantine and testing for unvaccinated or partly vaccinated travellers returning from abroad.
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister told The Globe he was pleased to see the easing of border restrictions, adding he hopes the premiers can reach an agreement on national vaccination credentials.
Mr. Pallister said the challenge of establishing such a system across provincial and international borders is regularly discussed among the premiers and Prime Minister. He said he expects the matter will be on the agenda for their meeting next week, adding that national consensus would be the “ideal scenario.”
In a statement, Conservative MPs Michelle Rempel Garner, Shannon Stubbs and Pierre Paul-Hus criticized Wednesday’s announcement, calling on the Prime Minister to “immediately scrap his unscientific and unsafe quarantine hotel program.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was generally supportive of the new measures, but questioned the government’s record on managing international travel during the pandemic.
“The quarantine hotels have been a debacle,” he said. “This is where the Liberal government certainly made a lot of mistakes.”
With a report from Eric Atkins
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