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Passengers travel through Pearson International Airport in Toronto. New travel testing and restrictions have been put in place due to the newly discovered coronavirus variant, now known as Omicron.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Air travellers returning to Canada from countries other than the United States should be ready to isolate pending a negative on-arrival COVID-19 test result, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos has warned, even though it remains unclear when the new rule will apply at all airports.

“All travellers should expect to be tested upon arrival and should be ready to isolate,” Mr. Duclos said at a news conference in Ottawa Friday. “It will take a few days before we are able to test all targeted travellers. But we are ramping up our capacity quickly and testing more and more travellers every day.”

He said the new rule is already being put in place, but neither he nor Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam were able to say which airports are already asking travellers to isolate while they await their test results. Airports have been randomly testing passengers upon arrival for months, and Mr. Duclos said the testing capacity at airports has increased 60 per cent since Wednesday.

The new rule was announced Tuesday and immediately created confusion for travellers. It was released with few details regarding the timing of the rollout or how it would apply to travellers who have layovers in the U.S. or Canada before reaching their final destination.

“It’s quite complicated, and I think we’re going to have to put up some tools on the website,” Dr. Tam said. “So that travellers can actually figure this out.”

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As of Friday the government’s travel website for vaccinated air travellers still did not say to expect to isolate nor that on-arrival tests would be mandatory.

Mr. Duclos said the government is focused on travellers arriving by air, so if Canadians land in the U.S. from a third country and then drive into Canada, they may be tested and asked to isolate, but the rule won’t be universally applied.

He also said that fully vaccinated travellers returning to Canada with a layover in this country before heading to their final destination will be allowed to continue to their final stop to isolate and wait for their on-arrival test result. Mr. Duclos said the test would be administered at the first airport travellers arrive at in Canada.

Additionally, he said, passengers who have been in a third country other than the U.S. but who fly through the U.S. on their way to Canada will still need to follow requirements for on-arrival testing and isolation.

The Canadian Airports Council said Friday that its members, which include all of Canada’s major airports, remain largely in the dark about how the government plans to roll out its mandatory on-arrival testing and isolation rule for all air travellers from countries other than the U.S.

“It’s been a campaign to understand what the announcement that was made on Tuesday will actually look like and what it will entail from an operational perspective,” council president Daniel-Robert Gooch said. He added that airports were on track to see their busiest month yet since the pandemic, but that’s now in question.

While cabinet ministers have been saying that the on-arrival tests will be take-home tests, Mr. Gooch said conversations with officials at the Public Health Agency of Canada have suggested they want on-site testing at the airport. Logistically, he said, that is not possible for all travellers.

“It will make the difference between whether people are flowing through an airport or whether they’re missing their connections and waiting hours,” he said.

The on-arrival test and isolate rule was part of a third change to international travel rules all unveiled in the past two weeks that both eased and tightened restrictions. The rules are also different depending on the region you’re travelling from. For travellers from the U.S. the rules are less strict, while they are much more restrictive for travellers coming from Botswana, Egypt, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

The government says this is based on science, but one of the government’s own advisers told The Globe and Mail Friday that while the risks posed by the new Omicron variant mean that “ramping up travel-related testing and quarantine is supported by the science,” different rules for different regions are not.

“With Omicron present in so many countries, we should have a single, coherent framework for international travel,” said Irfan Dhalla, a co-chair of the government’s COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel and vice-president of physician quality at Unity Health Toronto.

“The science does not support one approach for travellers from Africa and another approach for travellers from other continents.”

Dr. Tam and Mr. Duclos both defended the government’s approach. Canada’s top doctor said the rules take into account elements such as the spread of the virus in different countries, a country’s vaccination rate and the test positivity rate for travellers from different countries when they arrive in Canada.

Regarding the exemption for air travellers from the U.S., Mr. Duclos said the government is monitoring Omicron’s spread in that country but the harsher rules aren’t yet warranted.

“There will be community spread in the U.S. at some point, but there is none which is of significant magnitude at this time,” he said.

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