Canada will stop incoming flights from the U.K. for 72 hours to prevent the spread of a new coronavirus strain, according to a statement from Health Canada.
The policy will come into effect at 12:01 am Monday for all commercial and private passenger flights.
Passengers arriving in Canada on Sunday from the U.K. will also receive “secondary screening and enhanced measures, including increased scrutiny of quarantine plans,” the statement reads. Travelers arriving in Canada currently have to quarantine for 14 days upon entry, a policy that will remain in place.
“This afternoon, I convened a meeting with the Incident Response Group,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a tweet. “We focused on the new variant of COVID-19 identified in the UK, and we have decided to implement new border restrictions in order to keep you – and people right across the country – safe.”
The policy will not affect cargo flights or stops where passengers do not disembark, according to a Notice to Airmen sent out by NAV Canada.
Health Canada’s statement notes that the strain circulating in the U.K. has not been identified in Canada, and work continues to find if it is present. The travel restrictions are meant to give health officials time to research the new variant and gather further evidence on it, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.
The new variant of the novel coronavirus has been spreading quickly across the United Kingdom, prompting travel bans from several European countries on Sunday.
By Sunday morning, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Germany had barred flights from the U.K. to quell the spread of the virus, although there is debate among scientific communities on whether or not travel bans are the most effective way to limit the spread of the virus.
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Saturday early data found the variant to be 70 per cent more transmissible than its predecessor. He emphasized, though, that it was not expected to be more lethal than the previous variant, and that vaccines should still be effective against it.
“There’s no evidence that it causes more severe illness or higher mortality, but it does appear to be passed on significantly more easily,” he said.
“Although there’s considerable uncertainty, it may be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the old variant, the original version of the disease. This is early data and it’s subject to review.”
“But it’s the best that we have at the moment and we have to act on information as we have it, because this is now spreading very fast,” Johnson said.
Zain Chagla, an associate professor of medicine at McMaster University, said it was important to be careful, but said there were alternative solutions to shutting down borders.
“Theoretically, even if it is more transmissible, as long as we’re imposing quarantine effectively for people from the UK, our people flying back from the UK, then that theoretically should mitigate the risk as much as possible,” he said.
To that effect, Chagla noted that COVID-19 variants could already be developing in other parts of the world independently from the one in the U.K.
“There could be other variants in other places in the world that aren’t doing this type of genomic surveillance that are actually spreading more efficiently than this,” he said.
“It’s too much to just kind to say: ‘blanket ban.'”
In a statement Sunday, Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner called on the Trudeau government to provide Canadians with more information regarding the new variant.
Rempel Garner outlined a number of questions for the Trudeau government, including whether current testing can identify the new variant, and whether the federal government has been in contact with the provinces.
“Is action needed to address this new strain, and if so, what are the federal government’s plans in this regard?” the statement reads.
She said if the government is considering imposing a travel ban, they need to “clearly communicate this to Canadians and their rationale for doing so as soon as possible.”
The news comes as Canada marks a grim milestone in the wake of surging cases of COVID-19, surpassing 500,000 confirmed infections Saturday.
As of Saturday evening, the country had reported 501,189 cases, hitting the grim milestone less than one week after the federal government formally kicked off its mass immunization campaign and begun vaccinating front-line workers.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet called on the government to follow Europe’s lead and impose a travel ban on Britain to prevent the strain from reaching Canada.
“It will be several months before the pandemic is contained, especially with the number of (vaccine) doses available remains far too small,” Blanchet said in a statement released in French.
“If a variant of COVID-19 were to spread with increased speed among vulnerable people, the effects could be devastating on people’s health as well as on the health-care system and staff already under tremendous pressure.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh made the same call on Twitter, writing: “With vaccines still very rare, if this new strain gets loose here in vulnerable populations, it will be a disaster.
“We need more information, but until we know more, flights from the UK need to be suspended.”
For now, scientists say that these mutations, called “N501” and “H69/V70 deletion,” are expected in the case of any new virus, and should be no cause for concern.
Any new mutation “bears a little bit of watching,” Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of infectious diseases division at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. said in a previous interview with Global News.
However, he noted “we don’t know if it’s going to change anything.”
As Colin Furness, an epidemiologist teaching at the University of Toronto, said: “people should not be freaking out.”
Generally, he said viruses and bacteria mutate to become more contagious and less lethal.
“A virus that kills you immediately doesn’t have much chance to spread,” he explained.
“It doesn’t actually want to kill anyone. That’s a byproduct that’s not useful. It just wants to spread.”
Even if there is a mutation that spreads faster, Furness said “just because there’s a mutation doesn’t mean the vaccine has any trouble with it, and even if the vaccine does have trouble with it, it may not be catastrophic.”
— With files from The Canadian Press, Reuters and the Associated Press