With coronavirus cases continuing to rise across the country amid concerns of new, possibly more contagious COVID-19 variants, recent polling suggests most Canadians are in favour of closing the borders and prohibiting all international travel.
Since March last year, Health Canada has advised against non-essential travel, but that hasn’t stopped people from coming into the country, or prevented Canadians, including several politicians, from making trips abroad.
Martin Firestone, a travel insurance broker in Toronto, says his sales and call volume have gone up since the start of the new year.
“At the end of the day, this travel advisory is just that, an advisory to avoid non-essential travel … but as you can tell, anybody can fly anywhere they want right now,” he told Global News.
“If you really wanted to stop travel and stop variants of this virus from coming into Canada or going out of Canada, you would shut the country down. You would basically make it a no-fly travel zone — a border that is truly closed.”
Under the current rules, all travellers entering Canada have to show a negative COVID-19 test result before boarding a plane and quarantine for 14 days upon entering the country.
On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government will continue to look at all the measures, both to discourage travel and to ensure that the current measures are the right ones to protect Canadians.
He said, so far, the country’s travel measures have been “extraordinarily effective … But of course, we need to continue to strengthen those measures.”
While Canada has restrictions on who can enter the country, it is not preventing people from leaving. And nothing prevents Canadian citizens and permanent residents who travelled abroad for vacation or leisure from returning home, according to the federal government’s current online guidelines on international travel.
The United States, United Kingdom, Caribbean, Costa Rica, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Hawaii, Mexico, Finland and Greece are some of the countries to which a growing number of Canadian politicians travelled during the winter holidays.
In light of new cases of COVID-19 variants in the country that were first identified in the U.K. and South Africa, Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, says Canada could benefit from tighter border restrictions on entry and exit.
“Not heeding the advice of some experts to seriously curtail international travel is now demonstrably a mistake,” he told Global News in a previous interview.
In 2020, Dec. 5 saw the largest number of air travellers, with 1,370 people from overseas entering Canada, according to government data released on Wednesday. Some 218 people arrived by plane in Canada from overseas countries on New Year’s Eve day.
In an effort to curb the spread of the COVID-19, Canada enforced the negative-test rule on Jan. 7.
The continued pandemic restrictions have taken a heavy toll on the airline industry, with Canadian airlines recently slashing jobs and cutting flights. They have blamed the fed’s recent travel policy on COVID-19 testing for having an “immediate impact” on their business.
While the extra layer of restriction with the negative-test requirement will discourage travel, it will “only be mildly to moderately effective” according to Dr. Andrew Morris, an infectious disease expert with Sinai Health.
“It is more performance than real control,” he told Global News.
He said Canada needs “heavier controls on quarantine for arrivals, along with testing at entry and exit of those in commercial transport crossing our borders.”
Now, there is also concern that the new U.K. variant might even be contributing to a rise in local community transmission.
Dr. Wassim Saad, chief of staff at Windsor Regional Hospital, said they had noticed a much higher rate of transmission, just before the holidays.
“The thought had occurred, could we be dealing with a mutation or the U.K. variant or some other variant of this virus that could be leading to more efficient spread of this virus in our community? We don’t have a definitive answer yet,” he told Global News.
How effective are travel bans?
A new poll by Angus Reid Institute published on Thursday found that 65 per cent of Canadians say if the decision were up to them, they would prohibit personal travel.
The World Health Organization has cautioned that travel bans are not sustainable and urged the government to do more to control the virus within their own borders.
Some studies suggest that travel measures had proven to be effective at the start of the pandemic but once the virus started spreading across different countries, border closures were less fruitful.
“Stringent travel restrictions might have little impact on epidemic dynamics except in countries with low COVID-19 incidence and large numbers of arrivals from other countries, or where epidemics are close to tipping points for exponential growth,” a study published in the Lancet medical journal said last month.
Between Dec. 13 and Jan. 6, 1,873 foreign nationals arriving by air, land and sea from the United States were turned away at Canada’s border, according to the most recent data shared by Canada Border Services Agency with Global News. Some 1,650 were U.S. citizens who were refused entry for tourism/sightseeing, recreation or non-essential shopping reasons.
On Tuesday, a partial closure of the U.S.-Canada land border in place since last March was extended to Feb. 21.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says this measure has not had a “major impact” on the trajectory of the pandemic in both Canada or the United States.
Effective Jan. 26, all travellers heading from Canada into the U.S. will need proof of a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours before boarding.
“The goal should be to get people to be able to rapidly test themselves when they’re crossing, if that’s necessary,” said Adalja.
— With files from Global News’ Katie Dangerfield and Linda Boyle