As airlines reported an uptick in travel over the holidays, the federal government was on the defensive, arguing that its border measures are working, even as the country’s two most populous provinces called for stricter controls.
At a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the low rate of COVID-19 cases linked to international travel — less than 2 per cent nationally — show Canada’s rules, such as the 14-day quarantine for returning non-essential travelers, are effective. Health Minister Patty Hajdu said that doesn’t mean now is the time to let up, a point that she said is underscored by a new COVID-19 variant in Britain.
Ms. Hajdu said the recent decision to ban travel from Britain is a reminder of how quickly travel rules can change, and the risk for Canadians of being stranded abroad and of bringing new virus variants to Canada. Travel, she said, is “clearly unpredictable as the world battles COVID-19.”
“Please don’t plan to travel internationally if it’s not for essential purposes,” Ms. Hajdu said.
Allison McGeer, an infectious-disease physician at Sinai Health System and a member of the federal government’s COVID-19 immunity task force, said travel is what the disease thrives on and what will increase the spread of new variants.
“The further you go, the greater the chance that you’ll introduce or acquire a new variant and bring it back,” Dr. McGeer said.
But some airlines say the draw of warmer climates is leading to an increase in trips down south. Sunwing said in a statement it is encouraged by the demand for resort vacations, and WestJet said it expects to operate about 50 per cent more flights during the peak holiday season.
WestJet spokesperson Morgan Bell said bookings for southern locations have also gone up, due in part to an airport testing pilot program in Calgary that allows a shorter quarantine period in Canada. Also driving the bookings is a deal with Hawaii that allows Canadians to skip the island’s quarantine if they test negative for the coronavirus before arriving.
As Quebec and Ontario each marked another day with more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases, the provinces called for Ottawa to implement more rigorous controls at the border and in airports. But data suggest most of the cases are from internal community spread.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford told reporters on Tuesday he would like Canada to implement a pre-testing requirement for all international travellers. “There’s no reason why we should not expect the basic level of screening here in Canada,” he said. On Monday, the Premier compared Ottawa’s border controls to a “spaghetti drainer,” saying the province would set up COVID-19 testing for international arrivals with or without the support of the federal government.
A spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Health said testing will begin “early in the new year,” and it will partner with the Greater Toronto Airports Authority on the effort.
Quebec Premier François Legault joined Mr. Ford in urging Ottawa to vigorously enforce quarantine rules for returning travellers. Mr. Legault offered extra personnel to help federal workers keep track of airport arrivals. He added that the province could find hotels for travellers who don’t have a place to self-isolate for 14 days.
Mr. Legault said he was on the same page as the Ontario Premier. “We both worry about quarantines. We want to make sure it’s done properly,” he said.
The federal government rejected suggestions the border measures aren’t enough. “We have been doing the work necessary to keep our communities safe,” Mr. Blair told reporters. He said public health officials are stationed at the points of entry with the most cross-border traffic to assist customs officers. Canada Border Services Agency officials also make almost 8,000 daily live and pre-recorded calls to monitor people who are quarantining, Mr. Blair said.
When people are suspected of failing to comply with quarantine, Mr. Blair said, officials pass the information to local law enforcement to follow up.
In Alberta, the province’s testing pilot project for international arrivals has so far found 1.48 per cent of people tested at a port of entry had a positive result.
Ms. Hajdu said the quarantine is effective in preventing travellers from passing on the virus. “We’re in very good shape,” she said. But anonymized cell-phone data collected for Ontario and obtained by The Globe and Mail show people who were in quarantine after arriving from the United States spent only 77 per cent of the two-week period at home.
Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, supported the idea of tests at all airports in Canada.
By testing upon arrival, “you know which ones are positive off the bat,” he said, “which is excellent for making sure they’re isolated and not spreading it in the community.”
With a report from Tu Thanh Ha
Know what is happening in the halls of power with the day’s top political headlines and commentary as selected by Globe editors (subscribers only). Sign up today.