Canada’s federal government is opening the door to ending its mandatory three-day hotel quarantine stay for air travellers.
The news comes one day after an expert government panel said the feds should quash their mandatory hotel quarantine plan, claiming the program is expensive, inconsistent and has glaring loopholes.
And while Health Minister Patty Hajdu would not directly answer repeated questions from reporters about whether the government intends to ditch the program, she did confirm that the issue will be on the agenda at her next biweekly meeting with the provincial health ministers about COVID-19.
“I’ll be having a conversation with health ministers, on the implications of the report and what people’s thoughts are in terms of their own jurisdiction and in the country as a whole,” Hajdu said.
“So I don’t think I can comment yet in terms of what the plan will be, because we haven’t had that conversation as of yet.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first announced the mandatory hotel quarantine for air travellers in late January. As part of the announcement, he said air travellers would be required to take a PCR test at the airport upon their arrival in Canada. That’s on top of the negative COVID-19 test passengers have to show, taken within 72 hours of departure time, before stepping foot on the plane.
While these travellers wait for their COVID-19 test result, they’re forced to quarantine for up to three days at a designated hotel — on their own dime.
Trudeau added that the cost for this is “expected to be more than $2,000.”
“Those with negative test results will then be able to quarantine at home under significantly increased surveillance and enforcement,” Trudeau said at the time.
“Those with positive tests will be immediately required to quarantine in designated government facilities to make sure they’re not carrying variants of potential concern.”
In their report, published Thursday, the COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel found that while the mandatory hotel quarantine was “likely improving” compliance “for the short term,” there were “several issues” related to the policy.
One of those issues was the fact that some passengers were opting to pay a $3,000 fine rather than pay about $2,000 for the three-day stay. The panel also said the mandatory hotel stays were expensive to administer, and that some travellers are opting to fly into the U.S. and drive over the land border into Canada in order to avoid paying the costly fee.
“We thought it best to deploy resources elsewhere, (to) make sure we have an equitable treatment for travellers, regardless of whether they land in the country via air or through land travel and (do) not have means of people avoiding by paying a fine,” said Sue Paish, who is a co-chair of the panel.
The mandatory three-day stay is also inconsistent with COVID-19’s two-week incubation period, the panel found, and boosting the length of the hotel stay to match programs that exist in Australia or New Zealand would make the program even costlier.
“Given the current Canadian context, the Panel recommends a strong focus on adherence to quarantine rather than modifying the hotel quarantine program to become more like those in place in New Zealand and Australia,” read the report.
Dr. David Edward-Ooi Poon runs an organization called Faces of Advocacy, which helps reunite Canadians with loved ones separated by a border. He said he supports public health measures, but that the hotel quarantine program puts an unnecessary cost on the shoulders of families who could be safely isolating at home.
“We don’t want our family sick. We don’t want your family sick…I feel (there’s been) a strong level of fearmongering by some politicians, to equate all travel with partying in Cancun or going to an all-inclusive in the Dominican,” Poon said.
“Travel right now for those people with families in a binational setting are simply to be with our loved ones, to hold our loved ones, to take care of our loved ones, to be with them in an incredibly challenging and difficult pandemic.”
When Poon saw the advisory panel’s findings about the mandatory hotel quarantine, he said he felt “relieved” to see science backing his stance. But until the government takes firm action, Poon said he’ll remain skeptical of whether change will come.
“We have learned that we cannot breathe a sigh of relief until the actual change has occurred. And because of that, we are not quite ready to celebrate that we can have a safer family reunification into Canada,” he said.
Any change to the quarantine policies won’t happen until Hajdu and Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam have spoken to their provincial counterparts, both women said Friday.
“It’s really important that we have those conversations with the provinces and territories so that we can gauge their comfort, so that we understand their own domestic capacity and their perspectives on the report,” Hajdu said.
Meanwhile, Ontario Premier Doug Ford shared his own perspective on the report in his Friday press conference.
“They made one thing clear: the measures in place at Canada’s borders have failed Canadians. The rules are inconsistent, they’re full of loopholes, the federal government has been put on notice by its own experts,” Ford said.
However, the panel’s criticism was largely applied to the mandatory hotel quarantine program and the 14-day quarantine requirement.
When the mandatory hotel quarantine was announced in January, cases linked to international travel accounted for just two per cent of COVID-19 cases in Canada. On top of that, the vast majority of those arriving in Canada — whether by land or air — are exempt from quarantine measures due to the essential nature of their travel.
And as Canadians wait for the federal, provincial and territorial leaders to make a decision about the mandatory hotel quarantine program, stories of families impacted by the costly quarantine continue to emerge, Poon said.
“Just today, these are the messages that came in: a woman with stage four breast cancer with brain metastases cannot be with her partner to take care of her. Children, unable to be with their parent who has a job overseas, because of the extra costs,” he said.
“People are vaccinated, people are safely quarantining at home, and people are willing to follow public health guidelines. But a $2,000 hotel quarantine…is not fair to put on families who have the least to protect them.”
— With files from Global News’ Abigail Bimman