The Public Health Agency of Canada has no idea whether three-quarters of people who arrived by air earlier this year obeyed the requirement to quarantine at government-authorized hotels as part of the enforcement effort to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Auditor General Karen Hogan probed the agency’s tracking of measures put in place in response to the pandemic, currently poised to enter its third year. Her report was released Thursday.
In it, she assessed whether officials had listened to warnings last year responding to gaping holes in the agency’s ability to track whether travellers were following the rules.
“Though the Public Health Agency of Canada improved its results, this is not a success story,” said Hogan in a statement on Thursday. “The Agency’s inability to confirm whether more than a third of travellers complied with quarantine orders remains a significant problem.”
That audit found public health officials failed to “adequately administer” two specific border control measures that the federal government put in place earlier this year.
First, the Public Health Agency of Canada “was either missing or unable to match” the COVID-19 test results for 30 per cent of incoming travellers who arrived between February and June 2021.
Second, officials there had no idea whether 75 per cent of the travellers arriving by air during that period complied with the requirement to quarantine at government-authorized hotels.
That’s because of what the report described as “gaps and duplications” in the information that was being manually added into the secure portal that had been set up to try to track that data.
“The Agency was unable to confirm whether 75 per cent of the individuals arrived at the hotel and actually stayed for the three days,” said Hogan in a press conference on Thursday.
“So they were unable to show us whether that measure was an effective preventative measure.”
The report also noted the lack of clear data extended to roughly 1,100 travellers who tested positive for COVID-19. The Public Health Agency “did not reliably track” whether they obeyed the hotel quarantine rule either.
Hotels did notify officials about 326 travellers “who had bookings but did not check in.” But while 74 per cent of those cases were referred to law enforcement, no tickets had been issued at the time the report was being prepared by the jurisdictions with authority to do so.
The auditor general’s report comes after a year that involved the rise of the Delta variant, which dashed hopes for a return to normalcy. The report also sharpens concerns about the potential of the newly identified Omicron variant to evade some immune responses.
It underlines a question that has dogged the federal government over the course of the pandemic: How do officials know if the often-contentious initiatives being put in place are actually working?
Conservative health critic Luc Berthold said the report demonstrates a “total incompetency” by the government.
“The findings in the Auditor General’s report reveal a pattern of incompetence, with severe gaps in the application of policies,” he said in a statement. “The report that makes clear that this Liberal government has once again failed to take action on lessons learned.”
NDP critics also called the inability to verify whether people were following quarantine rules “negligence of gross proportions.”
“We know that border control measures that are evidence-based and well enforced can limit the number of COVID-19 cases and its variants in Canada,” said health critic Don Davies and transport critic Taylor Bachrach.
“But without knowing for sure whether travellers followed quarantine orders, no one knows whether the government’s border measures are working. This government may have put Canadians at risk of getting COVID.”
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the government will make an announcement on Friday about providing extra resources for airports to ramp up testing of arrivals.
“You’ll see tomorrow that many of those resources come from significant contracts that have been awarded over the last couple days,” he said in French during a press conference.
In a statement, he also acknowledged there is significant work still to do.
“As the Auditor General has noted our response has been far from perfect,” he said.
“We acknowledge it and we are making no excuses for it. We can and we must do better.”
Hogan noted that while the Public Health Agency of Canada had improved on some of the concerns flagged last year about a lack of data collected on incoming travellers, there remain key blind spots, particularly around questions of enforcement.
For example, while officials at the agency were calling just 58 per cent of travellers arriving with COVID-19 symptoms last year, that number increased to 92 per cent between July 2020 and June 2021.
Officials also lowered the number of cases when they couldn’t verify whether a traveller obeyed the 14-day quarantine rule from 66 per cent last year to 37 per cent in June 2021.
Overall though, auditors said the country is seeing “uneven” consequences across the country for people who do not comply with border measures.
“Most tickets for non-compliance were issued to air travellers who arrived at Toronto or Vancouver airports and had refused to book at a government-authorized hotel,” the report said.
“No tickets were issued in any of the territories or most other provinces, including Alberta and Quebec, where two of the four airports accepting international flights were located.”
There were a total of 6,391 tickets issued between December 2020 and June 2021.
More than 5,000 were issued in Ontario, raising questions about why other jurisdictions appear not to be enforcing consequences for those who choose not to follow the rules.
Hogan said the problem points to a lack of cohesion.
“If you’re going to create a requirement … you really have to have thought through the monitoring of that,” she said.
“It’s clear here this was more reactive than proactive.”