Vaccines work. Our travel rules should reflect that

Travelling? Experts fill us in on all the vaccinations you need before you go. Getty Images

For probably not the last time in this pandemic — or in whatever form the future existence of SARS-CoV-2 takes — we have a variant of concern that we’re hoping doesn’t become a major problem here in Canada.

The same variant that has run amok in India (B.1.617.2) is now posing a threat to the U.K.’s re-opening roadmap. In response to the rising cases of the variant, France is now banning non-essential travel from the U.K.

Canada’s record on this point has not been stellar. Obviously, we failed to keep out the original version of this virus (which first emerged in China), and Canada has had its struggled with both the B.1.1.7 variant (which first emerged in the U.K.) and the P.1 variant (which first emerged in Brazil). So far, all the designated variants of concern (VOCs) have been, to varying extents, detected here in this country.

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So it made sense that we would step up our game when it came to the screening and quarantining of those travelling or returning to Canada. Unfortunately, the hotel quarantine program implemented by the federal government has been haphazard, confusing, controversial, and — ultimately — unsuccessful.

Moreover, the government’s current testing and quarantine regime fails to take into account the realities of vaccination. It’s curious that while the government boasts of its success in finally procuring substantial numbers of vaccines and urges Canadians to be immunized, we see no reflection of that when it comes to our border policies. That needs to change.

Click to play video: 'Concerns interprovincial travel this summer will fuel COVID-19 uptick'
Concerns interprovincial travel this summer will fuel COVID-19 uptick

Fortunately, the government has some prudent guidance to follow on this matter. On Thursday, a report was released from a COVID-19 expert advisory panel which recommended major changes to Ottawa’s travel and border mandate, including an end to mandatory quarantine for those who are fully vaccinated.

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Notably, the panel recommends that the requirement for all air travellers to quarantine in government-authorized accommodations be discontinued. When it comes to vaccination status, though, it recommends very different approaches.

For fully vaccinated travellers, the report recommends that they forgo the requirement of a pre-departure test or any quarantine period. The only requirement would be a post-arrival test. Those who are partially vaccinated would require both the pre-departure and post-arrival tests, but if those both come back negative, they would no longer have to quarantine. Testing requirements and mandatory quarantine would still apply to non-vaccinated travellers, but that quarantine period could be reduced from 14 to seven days with a negative test on day seven.

This all seems fairly reasonable, and would likely result in higher compliance. One of the problems the mandatory hotel quarantine program has seen is a high number of travellers who simply refuse to pay for the hotel and go home, opting instead to pay the fine.

If our rules fail to take into account the impact of vaccination, they’ll have even less credibility in the eyes of the public. It’s hard to justify why a Toronto-to-Vancouver flight requires no testing or isolation for anyone, but a fully vaccinated individual who tests negative twice must still isolate after a Los Angeles-to-Toronto flight.

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The Canada-U.S. border is probably not far away from opening and as restrictions ease here and in other countries there’s going to be a major resurgence in international travel. For now, it can’t be a free-for-all, but we absolutely need to take vaccination into account.

For the most part, it appears as though Canada is going to shy away from the “vaccine passport” approach and instead rely on widespread immunization to allow for restrictions to be eased for everyone. But there are going to be more individual situations where vaccination status has to be taken into consideration.

In Alberta, for example, there are new rules for those who are determined to be close contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases. Unvaccinated individuals must still isolate for two weeks. That goes down to 10 days for those with one dose (or seven days if they test negative at that point). Those who are fully vaccinated don’t have to quarantine at all (unless they develop symptoms).

This approach still protects public health but it also recognizes the benefits of vaccination. Furthermore, it provides added incentive to be vaccinated. Such an approach can work when it comes to travel, too.

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So far the government’s response to the expert panel’s recommendations has been lukewarm, perhaps not surprisingly since the political issue of protecting the border is a sensitive one.

Even though the panel suggests that we don’t need any country-specific rules for testing or quarantine, that is something we may have to be open to in the weeks and months ahead. Otherwise, though, it’s time for our travel rules to reflect the science of vaccination.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.

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