Canadians returning to the country who are fully vaccinated will have restrictions eased in two weeks, but the federal government is still refraining from laying out a road map for a broader loosening of COVID-19 border measures.
Beginning at 11:59 p.m. ET on July 5, fully vaccinated Canadian citizens and permanent residents will be spared from all post-travel quarantine, the federal government announced Monday.
This first stage of relaxation of travel restrictions does not apply to fully vaccinated foreigners, save for a few exceptions, including international students.
When the planned changes were first announced on June 9, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said fully vaccinated Canadians would still have to quarantine while they await the results of a COVID-19 test that they take on arrival. On Monday, the Public Health Agency of Canada said that self-isolation requirement had also been dropped, but the test will still be performed.
The relaxed rules won’t be much help for families with children under 12, who are not eligible for vaccines.
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Children under the age of 18 who are not fully vaccinated, but are travelling with fully vaccinated parents, will be allowed to skip the quarantine hotel but will still have to quarantine at home for 14 days. Officials said parents will be able to leave their residences while they care for their kids in quarantine. They said the rules were created to mitigate the risk of a child spreading COVID-19 in the community.
“Undoubtedly this will be challenging for families that want to travel,” Ms. Hajdu said.
Canadians returning from abroad are currently required to quarantine for 14 days and those arriving by air must stay in designated hotels until the results of an arrival COVID-19 test are received. People who are partially vaccinated or have not received any vaccine will still be subject to those rules.
Under the new system, fully vaccinated Canadians must prepare for their return to Canada by uploading documents and information to the ArriveCAN software application or the government website.
Required information will include a 14-day travel history, results of a COVID-19 molecular test taken within 72 hours before their arrival in Canada as well as documents demonstrating they have been fully vaccinated.
People must be fully vaccinated with a Health Canada-approved vaccine to qualify, either Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca/Covishield or Johnson & Johnson. The government said the list of accepted vaccines could expand as more evidence becomes available.
As of Monday, more than 75 per cent of eligible Canadians have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and more than 22 per cent are fully vaccinated, according to covid19tracker.ca.
At a virtual press conference on Monday, federal ministers said rule changes will be guided by vaccination and hospitalization rates, as well as COVID-19 case counts. However, they did not disclose the specific metrics or how that will correspond to the lifting of other restrictions.
“We need to make sure that a substantial majority of Canadians are fully vaccinated and when we reach that threshold, it’s also going to facilitate additional measures,” Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said. Ms. Hajdu said a key target is 75 per cent of people fully vaccinated but she did not say what change will come with that level of coverage.
In contrast, most provinces and territories have released plans tying the end of some rules to specific vaccination targets.
Kelley Lee, a professor of global health at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University who leads the Pandemics and Borders Project, which researches cross-border measures to control pandemics, said it is likely the government is trying to avoid releasing benchmarks that could then change if a COVID-19 variant takes hold.
The first step released on Monday is “reasonable in the sense that they need to take it slow. No country has flung their doors open,” Prof. Lee said. But she added that the government could build more trust with the public if it released more information.
“They’ve somehow lost the trust of the public in how they’ve managed the borders,” Prof. Lee said. “They can improve that by collecting more data, making it more transparent, letting the public know what the real risks are and how they’re being managed.”
She said the government is balancing public pressure to open borders with a high enough level of vaccination coverage to avoid a resurgence.
“We’ve got to create a wet forest so if you drop a match in it, it doesn’t cause a fire,” Prof. Lee said.
Modelling done by her university colleague Caroline Colijn for The Globe and Mail shows that 90-per-cent full-vaccination coverage would likely avoid a fourth wave.
The federal government has come under fire from critics who say Ottawa is moving too slowly on relaxing travel restrictions. On Friday, the government again extended the Canada-U.S. border closure for non-essential travel until July 21. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada’s vaccination level is not yet sufficient to relax those rules.
Business groups decried the lack of details on Monday and said a full plan is needed to bring certainty to hard-hit sectors.
The federal government’s COVID-19 testing and screening expert panel recommended an overhaul of the rules in May, including that the quarantine hotels be scrapped. Canadian Chamber of Commerce president Perrin Beatty said the government should release a plan based on that advice.
“The fact that it is easier for vaccinated Canadians to fly to Paris than it is to drive to Buffalo demonstrates how illogical the present policy is,” Mr. Beatty said.
Ms. Hajdu defended the government’s go-slow approach. “Just a few weeks ago, we were sending health care professionals around this country to help with burgeoning hospital cases,” she said. “We want to make sure we are not in that situation ever again.”
Separately, the government said as of Monday it would repeal a ban on direct flights from Pakistan that it imposed in April. But it said it would maintain a ban on flights from India until at least July 21.
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