The federal government will focus on “fully vaccinated” Canadians when the time comes to begin relaxing travel and other restrictions put in place to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Tuesday.
His comments came as the government faces continued questions over whether quarantine hotels for incoming travellers are working as intended and at what point the growing number of partially and fully vaccinated Canadians might be able to begin travelling and living more normally.
“I understand how eager people are to put the pandemic behind us and be able to travel once again.… We see the number of cases dropping, we see the situation improving tremendously,” said Trudeau.
“We’ll have more announcements to make on measures that may be eased for those who’ve had both doses in the weeks to come…. Easing of restrictions will be focused on Canadians who are fully vaccinated.”
Countries around the world shut down their borders last year as the novel coronavirus spread.
The Canadian government barred non-essential foreign nationals and warned Canadians against non-essential travel outside the country in March 2020. Officials later adjusted the rules to require negative COVID-19 PCR tests prior to and after arrival, a period of mandatory quarantine and fines for ignoring it, and limits on which airports could accept incoming international arrivals.
In February 2021, the government also announced travellers arriving in the country would have to quarantine at their own expense in a government-authorized hotel. Only after receiving a negative COVID-19 test could they continue their total 14-day quarantine at home.
The move was billed as an attempt to stem the risk of infected travellers amid months of reports of Canadians returning to the country and ignoring quarantine rules at their residences. It also came as increasing cases of variants of concern fuelled the rise of a third wave in many regions.
Canadians who can afford to pay a fine — initially $3,000, now $5,000 — have been able to ignore the quarantine hotel requirement. Data from the Public Health Agency of Canada suggests less than one per cent of those fined for refusing the hotel quarantine tested positive for COVID-19.
Those tests were done on the day of arrival and eight days after arrival.
But as vaccination rates continue to ramp up among Canadians, the effectiveness and need for the hotel quarantine is being increasingly questioned amid concerns over the impact of border shutdowns on tourism industry members.
The Tourism Industry Association of Canada on Wednesday called on the federal government to open the Canada-U.S. border before the summer tourism season is lost.
“With vaccinations rising and case numbers going down, we must now pivot to more forward-thinking policies, and talk about safely reopening the border, ending the extreme financial crush that has flattened the tourism industry and devastated the tourism economy in Canada,” Beth Potter, president and CEO of the industry group, said in a statement.
“As Canada and the U.S. return to normal, we must prepare to open the border quickly and safely, and restart our tourism economy.”
Potter said it’s crucial for the government to provide guidance for the tourism industry and that with vaccination rates rising, the time has come to consider how to begin reopening the border.
A federal advisory panel recommended late last month that the government consider scrapping the program given it is not equally applied to those arriving by air and by land, and suggested those who are fully vaccinated should not have to take pre- or post-arrival tests, or do the 14-day quarantine.
Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease specialist with McMaster University, said the suggestion comes as evidence suggests it is “unlikely” that someone fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will spread the virus.
“There is definitely a need to really rethink the system. They certainly worked in the context when we had no vaccines, when there was no solution to protecting the community from quarantine requirements outside of putting people at these facilities,” he said.
Chagla said he expects to see vaccination status playing a growing role in any conversations around how to reopen borders as safely as possible, in terms of both the spread of COVID-19 on the ground in other countries and the types of vaccines being used around the world.
While the vaccines being used in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and the European Union have been rigorously tested with all clinical data available for scientific review, that’s not the case with some of the other vaccines, such as the candidate from Russia.
There have been questions about how effective that vaccines is and questions about the integrity of the clinical data behind it given a lack of transparency from Russian officials about the development process.
Chagla said there may be a place for quarantine requirements to remain for travellers who say they are fully vaccinated but have received vaccines not approved in Canada.
“There probably does need to be a distinction of people that were vaccinated on Canadian soil or in the U.S., where more things have been very aggressive and validated,” he said, noting the same applies to those in the U.K. and E.U.
“But when you start getting to places in the world where vaccine supplies have been suboptimal, where they’re not WHO-approved vaccines to date, even in those cases where there’s been some mixing and matching of vaccine protocols … it does get a little bit dicey in that context.”
With yellow fever vaccines, for example, Chagla noted anyone without proper vaccination records can be either denied entry to a country upon arrival or required to be vaccinated on site at the airport.
“There’s going to have to be some standard of what a vaccinated individual is.“