In an effort to curb the continuing coronavirus crisis, Canada will require all air passengers to obtain a negative COVID-19 test three days before arriving in the country.
The presence of Canada Border Service Agency agents will also be increased at border crossings and airports to ensure Canadians understand the newly tightened rules, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said.
The test must be a PCR test — considered the gold standard of COVID-19 tests. These tests need to be processed in a lab and usually take at least a day to provide results.
The new rules are expected to come into effect in the next few days.
“We strongly advise against travel unless absolutely necessary,” Blair said at a news conference in Ottawa on Wednesday.
“If you must travel, understand that upon your return, you must follow guidelines and quarantine for 14 days. It’s not just the right thing to do — it’s the law. And if you don’t, it can result in serious consequences.”
The announcement follows criticism that federal travel restrictions have been too lax. It also comes as Ontario’s finance minister faces calls to resign over his travel to St. Barts over the holidays, despite Canadians being asked to avoid such trips.
Blair emphasized that the new travel rule does not replace the 14-day quarantine period. He said violation of quarantine laws can result in up to six months in jail or up to $750,000 in fines.
“But more importantly, you will put your family, your friends and your community at risk,” he continued.
“We know that some Canadians have travelled out of the country for non-essential purposes, despite the clear public health guidance asking them not to do so. These Canadians, of course, have a right to return home. But when they come back they have a responsibility, both legal and moral, to quarantine.”
Blair acknowledged that a pre-boarding test is not a silver bullet, but said there is “some efficacy” in the strategy — that it would “add to the strict regime” of rules Canada already has in place.
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To ensure compliance, Blair said there will be an increase in followups — whether that be phone calls or home visits.
The timing of the new rules, in part, coincides with a typically busy travel season for Canadians. As winter sets in, Blair said the government expects more people will travel for non-essential reasons, despite the warnings.
Blair said it will be up to the airline to make sure travellers provide the negative test before they board a plane headed to Canada.
Vaccine rollout update
The additional layer of protection comes on the heels of rising case counts across the country.
The pandemic has tightened its grip on many provinces as winter has settled in, with the country’s total number of infections rising above 565,000 as of Tuesday. More than 15,000 people have died of COVID-19 since the health emergency first took hold.
The climbing cases and hospitalizations come as the Moderna vaccine — the second coronavirus vaccine to be approved in Canada — has started to make its way across the country, mere weeks after the Pfizer vaccine.
However, some provinces are facing criticism over the speed of their rollout plans. Ontario has been grilled over its decision to scale down vaccination operations over the holidays. Retired general Rick Hillier, who is leading Ontario’s vaccine program, has said the decision to close clinics over Christmas Day and Boxing Day was the wrong one.
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In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney has acknowledged his government overestimated how quickly it would be able to get shots into people’s arms. The province initially expected to have 29,000 people vaccinated by the end of the year, but only about 7,000 health-care workers had received their shots as of Dec. 29.
Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, who is overseeing logistical planning for Canada’s vaccine distribution efforts, said the December allocations of vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna have almost all been delivered. He said Canada expects a sustained tempo of vaccine delivery in January, and an accelerated tempo through early 2021.
This week’s vaccine dose deliveries will bring the total to 424,150. By the end of January, Fortin said Canada should have 1.2 million doses of both vaccines.
As of Wednesday morning, at least 72,400 doses of the Pfizer-BioTech vaccine had been administered across Canada, according to a vaccine tracker run by a University of Saskatchewan student based on official updates from each province.
COVID-19 variant in Canada
A new variant of the illness is also drawing concern in Canada.
The variant, which is believed to be more contagious, was first identified in the U.K. but has since spread to four provinces. In recent days, Ontario reported three cases of the variant, Alberta reported one, British Columbia reported one and Quebec one.
Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada’s deputy chief health officer, said early information points to this variant being more transmissible. He said there is no data at this time to suggest it’s more lethal, or that the vaccine would be rendered ineffective against it.
Flights from the U.K. to Canada have been suspended since Dec. 21 in an effort to curb further travel-related spread. It is expected to remain in place until at least Jan. 6, 2021.
Njoo stressed the importance of the mandatory quarantine in the wake of the discovery of this new variant.
“All people identified in Canada with the variant were fortunately already in quarantine,” Njoo said.
“Quarantine has proven to be a protective measure that works.”
— with files from Global News’ Hannah Jackson, Rachel Gilmore and The Canadian Press