Canada has added multiple restrictions on travel from countries in southern Africa, banning all foreign nationals who travelled there in the past 14 days and requiring anyone who has done so and is already in Canada to immediately go into quarantine.
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos and Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announced the new measures at a news conference in Ottawa Friday, shortly after the World Health Organization designated a new coronavirus variant, first detected in the region, a variant of concern. The WHO has named it Omicron.
The countries affected by the travel ban are South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini and Namibia.
The government is taking a “belt and suspenders” approach to its travel rules, Mr. Duclos said, adding that the measures are based on an “abundance of caution.”
He said people already in Canada who travelled to the region over the past two weeks should get a COVID-19 test and stay in isolation until they receive a negative test result.
Canadians and permanent residents who have the right to return to Canada and travelled in southern Africa will be tested upon arrival and must stay in a quarantine hotel until they get a negative test result. They can then complete their isolation at home, Mr. Duclos said.
People with right of entry to Canada will also have to get tested for COVID-19 in the last country they transit through on their way to Canada.
Global Affairs Canada will also issue an advisory against travel to southern Africa, Mr. Duclos said. As of Friday evening, the government’s websites had not yet been updated with the new advice.
Mr. Alghabra said the new rules will be in effect until at least Jan. 31.
The variant has also been detected in Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium, but Mr. Alghabra said the government imposed the new restrictions on countries with community spread.
“We are ready to always assess this list,” he said, adding that Canada already has a slate of blanket restrictions on all travellers, including vaccination requirements.
Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said Friday that the variant has not been identified in Canada but likely would be difficult to keep out. She said Omicron is unusual for its high number of mutations, which may affect its transmissibility and ability to evade vaccines.
The federal government announced the measures shortly after the premiers of Ontario, Quebec and Alberta and the federal Conservatives issued public appeals to tighten Canada’s border measures, in line with those of other countries around the world.
“We have a small window of opportunity to act – and we must move now,” Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said.
For months experts have warned that the unequal distribution of vaccines between wealthy and poor countries could prolong the pandemic because it creates fertile ground for new variants. In a statement, the NDP said it supports tighter travel rules but also called on Canada to support a waiver of intellectual property rights for vaccines at the World Trade Organization to give low-income countries easier access.
“This new variant again shows that Canada won’t get past the pandemic until all people around the world have access to vaccines,” NDP MP Taylor Bachrach said.
Canada is also examining its strategy for booster shots – for instance, whether they should be extended to younger populations, Dr. Tam said.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization has recommended booster shots for people 70 and over, as well as anyone who received two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The committee is consulting the provinces and territories on the matter, and Dr. Tam said updates would be provided after the next round of talks. She said it’s too early to say whether the new variant will change the trajectory on advice for booster shots.
Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Kieran Moore, said this week that he expects an update soon on “an expanded eligibility for third doses that will follow the science.”
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