Travellers arriving in Canada from countries other than the United States can expect to isolate for as many as three days while they wait for their COVID-19 test results, part of Ottawa’s evolving strategy to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.
The new on-arrival testing rule for air travellers was first announced Tuesday in a suite of new measures. However, the details of its implementation were still foggy Wednesday, with the country’s major airports waiting for more information and the government not saying when the rule will be fully in place.
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said it is already in effect but the speed of implementing it will vary across the country. The government declined to say Wednesday where the rule is already in place.
“We’re ramping up the capacity. In the coming days, we’ll reach full capacity, but testing has started,” Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said.
Mr. Duclos said travellers will either be tested at the airport or given one to take at home in isolation. He said the expected “service standard” to receive a test result is three days, but at the moment the majority of tests come back in a day. That could change, he cautioned, as the government increases the number of travellers being tested by more than 50 per cent.
“Depending on local circumstances, that could take longer than what has been seen in the recent weeks and months,” he said.
The government said the on-arrival test and isolation rule will apply to all travellers who have been in a country other than the U.S. in the past 14 days – even if they arrive in Canada via the U.S.
On Wednesday some of Canada’s busiest airports – Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal – said they had scant information about the new rule, with Toronto and Vancouver confirming it is not yet in place.
Vancouver International Airport spokesperson Alyssa Smith said it will be implemented in the “coming days.” The same approximate timing was given by a spokesperson for Toronto’s Pearson Airport, Tori Gass, who added that all unvaccinated and partially vaccinated international passengers are being tested upon arrival.
Random testing of fully vaccinated international travellers is already under way, Ms. Gass said, but so far they are not being told to quarantine.
At Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, spokesperson Eric Forest said they don’t yet have the full details “regarding the applicability of the measures announced.” Mr. Forest directed The Globe and Mail to the Public Health Agency of Canada when asked whether passengers undergoing random testing are already being told to isolate while they await their test results.
The agency did not answer The Globe’s question Wednesday.
The Canadian Airports Council said it is waiting for details, but the “only operationally feasible way” to test all international travellers is to provide off-site testing.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said the government will “make sure that our airports, our front-line officers, can handle the volume.” Data from the Public Health Agency of Canada show that more than 200,000 commercial travellers flew into the country each week since October. That number has increased significantly in the past few weeks, with 262,581 arriving between Nov. 15 and 21.
The rapidly changing rules are creating confusion for travellers. Since Friday, the government has tightened restrictions on international travel twice, including banning foreign nationals from 10 African countries where Omicron has been detected. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said testing and quarantining measures are very important given the “great worry” around the new variant, but he criticized the government for “a lack of consistency and clarity at a time when that’s what we need.”
“We need a clear plan around what the testing is going to be and how it’s going to work,” he said.
Mr. Singh also said there has not been any clear explanation of why the U.S. has been exempted from the enhanced testing regime or why foreign nationals from wealthier countries where Omicron has been detected are not also being banned.
On Tuesday the federal government said it would consult the provinces and territories on whether the on-arrival test and isolation requirement should be expanded to include travellers from the U.S. Mr. Duclos said it was agreed that stricter rules were not needed for people from the U.S. at this time because the spread there appears “under control and their public-health system is working effectively.”
He added that the governments agreed that the focus should be on protecting Canadians “from the concerns seen in other continents.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford welcomed the new rules announced by Ottawa, and Health Minister Christine Elliott, who attended the meeting with Mr. Duclos, said “the indications are that there’s no immediate danger for people that are coming in from the United States.”
She cautioned, though, that the situation is fluid and “there may be more news.”
The Canadian Chamber of Commerce said changes to any rules governing the Canada-U.S. border should be co-ordinated. The two countries should have “similar standards crossing the border, irrespective of direction or mode of transportation,” senior vice-president Mark Agnew said.
Beth Potter, the president and chief executive officer of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, said the association is monitoring the changing rules.
“We are looking to get our industry back up and running, but also understand the reality and unpredictability of this virus,” she said. “This is another example where we will need to pivot while learning to live and operate in a world where COVID exists.”
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