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Officials warned Canada couldn’t enforce coronavirus quarantine for travellers from China: memo

Travellers walk through Terminal 3 at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Friday, March 13, 2020. Provincial governments have advised against international travel and Ontario announced plans to close its schools for two weeks because of COVID-19.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn.
Travellers walk through Terminal 3 at Pearson International Airport in Toronto, Friday, March 13, 2020. Provincial governments have advised against international travel and Ontario announced plans to close its schools for two weeks because of COVID-19.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Federal health officials appear to have warned in early February, as the novel coronavirus spread globally, that Canada did not have the resources to enforce a quarantine order on travellers returning from China’s Hubei province.

Federal, provincial and territorial health departments agreed not to order tens of thousands of travellers arriving in Canada from China to quarantine in February in order to reduce pressure on public health resources, according to a memo addressed to Health Minister Patty Hajdu and signed by the Public Health Agency of Canada’s president and chief public health officer.

The memo was included in roughly 1,000 pages of documents shared by public health officials with the federal health committee last month.

Coronavirus outbreak: Federal ministers outline process for new mandatory quarantine practices
Coronavirus outbreak: Federal ministers outline process for new mandatory quarantine practices

In it, officials said there were roughly 20,000 passengers coming into Canada from China every week and that attempting to enforce or track a mandatory quarantine on them would be unrealistic.

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“If this approach were to be extended to China, it would be unsustainable given the volume of travellers,” the memo explained.

“A voluntary self-isolation places less pressure on public health resources.”

READ MORE: Approval of prime minister, premiers soars amid coronavirus response, Ipsos poll suggests

The senior public servants also agreed, at the time, that “most individuals” would respect requests to self-isolate after receiving a handout from officials at the airport.

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“Canadians may question a voluntary approach since there is no ability to enforce or ensure compliance,” said the memo.

“However, there is anecdotal evidence that individuals who have returned from Hubei are already self-isolating. We could expect that most individuals would be compliant, given concern and anxiety associated with the coronavirus.”

Asked about that advice from federal health officials and why the federal government didn’t do more to bolster public health resources at that time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded: “We recognized early on that this was a challenge and we did take many measures to try and control or prevent or ensure that Canada was less vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19 that we were seeing elsewhere in the world.”

“With hindsight, I’m sure there are lots of things that we could have done differently, could have done differently, but I can tell you that every step of the way, we took the advice of our medical professionals and our public health experts seriously and did as best we could,” the prime minister said during a news conference Wednesday about Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“I’m sure there will be many many people reflecting on different countries’ responses and what we need to do to ensure we’re even better prepared next time.”

READ MORE: Coronavirus — 23 Canadians being held at federal quarantine sites, officials say

The memo sent to Hajdu was prepared following a briefing delivered by the country’s top public health officials to their managers in health departments across Canada about how to address the growing crisis.

The memo said that enforcing the Quarantine Act would require more resources for local public health units so they could “undertake active monitoring of each individual,” as well as an emergency order.

A month later, on March 25, the federal government made an emergency order under the Quarantine Act that required any traveller entering Canada by air, sea or land to quarantine for 14 days, whether they were experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or not.

The government has asked all residents, regardless of travel history, to stay home except for essential trips and to keep a two-metre distance from other people when they are out in public.

Results of an Ipsos poll conducted for Global News suggests one in four people are not practicing these physical distancing recommendations as much as they should.

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Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau says everyone must use good judgment during pandemic
Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau says everyone must use good judgment during pandemic

Trudeau was asked by a journalist at his daily briefing on Wednesday whether there are any further tools he would consider using to enforce social distancing or punish those who break the rules.

He said the government is continually evaluating the situation.

“Unfortunately we do see that there are some people who are not choosing to follow these instructions,” he said.

“We continue to impress upon everyone that we need to do what is necessary to get through this as quickly and safely as possible. We will continually work with cities and jurisdictions on measures they may feel are necessary.”