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Domestic flights account for 80% of COVID-19 cases among air travellers

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Domestic flights in Canada are currently carrying more confirmed cases of COVID-19 than international flights, according to federal data, accounting for more than 80 per cent of planes with potential COVID-19 exposure.

A Global News analysis on Monday of government information on exposure from air travel between April and May of this year showed that 226 domestic flights had at least one passenger who tested positive for COVID-19 compared to 50 planes entering Canada from an international route.

Read more: Over 5,000 air travellers flying to Canada test positive for COVID-19 since February

Canada has imposed a raft of strict measures when it comes to international travel, including a flight ban from India and Pakistan amid concerns over rising COVID-19 cases. But the same level of restrictions does not apply to passengers travelling within the country.

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“We haven’t really, as a country, said travel’s a bad thing,” Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, told Global News.

“It’s reckless, it’s dangerous, it poses a harm to others unnecessarily, for the most part.”

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As Canada grapples with a third wave of COVID-19, with some provinces reporting a surge in new cases, Furness said more needs to be done to discourage domestic travel, including a negative test requirement, heavy testing and mandatory quarantine.

A temporary COVID-19 tax on every seat sold can also help deter people from getting on a plane, he said.

“You can regulate a lot of behaviour simply by making it less appealing by making it more expensive and that money can go straight into COVID mitigation,” Furness said.

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Inter-provincial restrictions

There are no federal requirements if you travel within Canada without having been out of the country.

“Provinces do have jurisdiction on who can travel into the province as we have seen in Atlantic Canada,” said Kelly Ouimet, a spokesperson for the office of Canada’s minister of intergovernmental affairs, Dominic LeBlanc.

Read more: Airline industry group urges Canada to follow U.K.’s lead, plan restart for air travel

“Our government remains here to help in any way we can and we will continue to work collaboratively with provinces and territories to fight COVID-19,” she told Global News in an emailed statement.

Provincial health authorities have advised against non-essential travel amid the pandemic and imposed their own set of restrictions.

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In Nova Scotia, you are legally required to self-isolate for 14 days even if you don’t have symptoms and have travelled from outside the province.

But in Saskatchewan, it is not mandatory to self-isolate for 14 days upon return from an out-of-province trip.

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Meanwhile, Alberta, which is seeing the country’s highest rate of COVID-19 infection, has no inter-provincial travel requirements.

As of April 19, Ontario has closed its land borders to Quebec and Manitoba — with some exemptions — but trains and flights are permitted to enter.

“Domestically, (there is) no issue flying from one province to the other,” said Martin Firestone, a travel insurance broker in Toronto.

“What is the point of stopping cars from coming over provincially if you’re going to allow planes to fly?”

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Firestone, of Travel Secure, said he has recently noticed an uptick in people travelling within Canada, with clients inquiring about travel insurance in another province, which is not needed.

Currently, international flights are only landing at four Canadian airports — Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary.

Read more: No tickets issued yet at B.C.’s essential travel COVID-19 checkpoints

Since many international travellers have to take a local flight to get to their final destination in the country, that could partially explain why domestic flights were carrying more COVID-19 cases, Firestone said.

A decline in international travel could also be contributing to why domestic routes now account for a greater proportion of cases.

Furness said an outright ban on provincial travel might be needed for a few weeks as variants of concern continue to spread across provinces and territories.

“The variants tragically made the way into the country in the first place … but now that they’re here, the worst thing we can do is stir the pot even more to make sure that they go from coast to coast. We shouldn’t want that.

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