More than 6.3 million travellers who entered Canada since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic didn’t have to complete the mandatory 14-day quarantine, according to new statistics provided by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).
This includes truck drivers and other people involved in the transportation of commercial goods, cross-border workers who travel to the United States regularly, and people who arrive in Canada by plane, either from the U.S. or other countries directly.
“The border is not closed,” said Colin Furness, an infectious control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.
Furness said he doesn’t want to vilify truck drivers and believes they’re doing essential work, but he thinks it’s “appalling” that some air travellers, including wealthy and high-profile visitors, have been granted exemptions to the mandatory travel rules.
The statistics provided by the CBSA show that 74 per cent of the total 8.6 million travellers who entered Canada by land and air since quarantine measures were implemented in late March have been exempt from the rules.
Truck drivers, which account for half of the total number of travellers, and other essential workers make up the vast majority of the exemptions. The CBSA said 92 per cent of all travellers who entered Canada by land since March 31 were exempt from quarantine.
Meanwhile, about two million passengers and airline crew have entered Canada on commercial flights since the start of the pandemic. More than 1.3 million of these travellers arrived from countries other than the U.S.
The CBSA said 91 per cent of travellers who arrived in Canada by air since March 31 were required to quarantine, which leaves roughly 180,000 crew members, who are considered essential workers, and passengers who were exempt from quarantine.
“All travellers entering Canada are subject to COVID-19 entry screening, regardless of their country of origin or mode of entry,” said CBSA spokesperson Jacqueline Callin.
“Anyone arriving at the border must isolate for 14 days if they have symptoms of, or confirmed COVID-19, or they must quarantine for 14 days if they do not have symptoms, unless they are exempt.”
Kelley Lee, Canada research chair in global health governance at Simon Fraser University, said the rise of new, highly infectious coronavirus variants means the federal government needs to take immediate action to reduce non-essential travel.
Lee said governments must do better at tracking cases linked to travel, and should prioritize vaccinating essential workers such as truck drivers and airline crews.
“People that are doing these essential jobs, they need to be vaccinated with priority because they can’t change their job. They have to go across the border,” Lee said.
“But there are still people going out for non-essential purposes and I think that’s where we have to reduce the numbers.”
Risk of spreading the virus
Furness, meanwhile, said the number of people entering Canada who are exempted from quarantine is far too high to monitor and effectively manage.
While he believes it’s critical that commercial goods and other essential items be allowed to continue entering the country, he said provincial and federal governments have failed to implement adequate surveillance and monitoring of travellers to ensure they’re not spreading COVID-19 upon their arrival.
At the land border, where the majority of people exempted from quarantine are entering Canada, public health officials have not implemented widespread COVID-19 testing and there is no proactive monitoring of exempted travellers, Furness said.
“I don’t want to keep trade goods out of the country. I don’t want to shut that stuff down. And I don’t want to discriminate against truck drivers,” he said.
As for air travel, Furness said that the government has failed to define what is and isn’t essential travel and that Canadians have been permitted to vacation abroad despite knowing the risks this presents to themselves and everyone around them.
He also said new and more contagious variants of the virus, such as the U.K. variant, will likely be the cause of Canada’s third-wave of the pandemic.
This, he said, could largely have been prevented had Canada taken stronger action with testing, monitoring and quarantines at the border sooner.
“We could close the airports. We could actually stop that happening. We simply choose not to, and that’s incredibly unfortunate,” Furness said.
Furness also said other countries, particularly Taiwan and New Zealand, have done a far better job at managing the spread of the virus.
He said both countries took a hard stance on international travel early in the pandemic and maintained far stricter controls over quarantines. This includes Taiwan’s use of cellphones to track people and make sure they adhered to the rules and didn’t leave their homes while still contagious.
Concerns raised by premiers
On Jan. 7 the federal government announced that anyone entering Canada by air would be required to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of boarding their flight. Anyone unable to provide proof would not be allowed to travel.
The government has also launched several pilot projects to test air passengers upon arrival in Canada.
At Toronto’s Pearson airport, international travellers can choose to be tested for free using a standard PCR-based test. Passengers use a nasal swab to collect the sample themselves while under the supervision of a trained health professional. The project has shown about a two per cent positivity rate among returning travellers to date.
Public health officials have also maintained that cases of COVID-19 in Canada linked either directly or indirectly to international travel are low, making up about 2.5 per cent of total cases.
But data on how the virus is transmitted is incomplete. More than 180,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada have no known source of infection, according to data from the federal government.
Several Premiers, meanwhile, have called on the federal government to take immediate action on non-essential travel.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault said on Jan. 26 that he wants Ottawa to enact a total ban on non-essential travel or to mandate a 14-day stay in a hotel upon arrival in Canada.
These comments were echoed by Ontario Premier Doug Ford who also called for a temporary ban on direct flights from countries where new strains of coronavirus have been detected.
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister took matters into their own hands and introduced a 14-day self-isolation period for anyone travelling into Manitoba from other parts of the country.
Canada briefly banned flights from the U.K. following concerns that the new variant of the virus was spreading here. This ban was subsequently lifted when the government announced the requirement for proof of a negative COVID-19 test before boarding a flight.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau insists Canada’s border restrictions are among the strictest in the world and warned Canadians on Jan. 26 that new travel restrictions will be coming soon.
“Obviously, extremely low is still not zero and one case is too many if we’re importing, particularly considering the variants out there,” Trudeau said.
Other government officials, including Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, have said new travel restrictions are being considered.
Garneau said in an interview with CBC that he’s also considered using the federal Emergencies Act to potentially prohibit Canadians from travelling.