International travel advisory won’t stop Omicron spread, scientists say

Click to play video: '‘We have to go see our families’: Travel advisory frustrates pandemic-fatigued Canadians'
‘We have to go see our families’: Travel advisory frustrates pandemic-fatigued Canadians
WATCH: Frustration is mounting among airlines and travellers over Canada's advisory against non-essential international travel. Abigail Bimman has the reaction from pandemic-fatigued people, what experts are warning travellers about, and how Ontario is making grim predictions about what could happen if no measures are taken – Dec 16, 2021

The federal government is again advising Canadians to refrain from international travel due to COVID-19 – but many experts say the measure is too little, too late.

“These restrictions don’t keep variants out,” said Dr. Neil Rau, an infectious diseases specialist with Halton Healthcare Services.

“We’ve already had experience with three other major variants that were not stopped, either, while we had very strict travel practices or restrictions for foreigners for Canadians,” he said.

“Now we’re imposing a restriction when Omicron is already well-established in Canada. There is no point telling people not to travel for the sake of Omicron when it’s already here.”

Click to play video: 'Ottawa advises Canadians to avoid all non-essential international travel'
Ottawa advises Canadians to avoid all non-essential international travel

On Wednesday, federal health minister Jean-Yves Duclos said “now is not the time to travel,” announcing an official advisory recommending that Canadians avoid all non-essential international travel, given the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

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This was being done to both protect the travellers and to protect the health system from being overwhelmed, he said.

Julianne Piper, a research fellow and project coordinator with the Pandemics and Borders project at Simon Fraser University, agrees with Rau.

Click to play video: 'Some premiers concerned about advisory on non-essential international travel'
Some premiers concerned about advisory on non-essential international travel

“I think there is little evidence at this point that a travel advisory will have an impact,” she said. “Obviously it’s not going to prevent the importation of the Omicron virus.

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“It’s already here.”

Nazeem Muhajarine, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Saskatchewan, is a bit less adamant.

“There’s not a whole lot of solid evidence to support this but it is a logical measure with an aim to reduce volume and reduce people and to regain capacity to do some of the other, more effective things like testing,” he said.

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Click to play video: 'Omicron variant stifles travelling plans'
Omicron variant stifles travelling plans

Temporarily limiting the volume of travellers, he said, might help reduce the number of Omicron cases Canada has to deal with, which could in turn help hospitals. Because of Omicron’s ability to spread exponentially, he thinks, this could matter.

“It’s actually quite something to note, with each person potentially being able to pass on to four people, and then each of those four people being able to pass it on to another four,” he said.

Jason Kindrachuk, a virologist and Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba, agrees that it’s too late to stop importation of the virus into Canada. He wonders, though, if it can still be stopped from spreading throughout the country.

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“Travel restrictions can be beneficial if enacted early enough to blunt or stop seeding of virus into various communities prior to community transmission taking over,” he said.

“The question now is whether international restrictions will limit that and what are the concerns regarding additional distribution of Omicron across Canada through interprovincial travel.”

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Feds advise Canadians to avoid non-essential travel outside Canada'
COVID-19: Feds advise Canadians to avoid non-essential travel outside Canada

Travel concerns

When it comes to the federal travel advisory, Piper isn’t sure how many people will actually listen to the advice to stay home.

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“It’s 10 days before the holidays. People have made plans already,” she said.

She still thinks that it’s a “well-founded” travel advisory.

“Travelling internationally right now, there’s not only a risk to your personal and sort of family health, the risk of becoming infected with the virus and potentially being hospitalized in a foreign country,” she said.

“There’s also a risk that you’ll get caught up with these ever-changing and sometimes quickly-changing travel measures, not only by the Canadian government but also by whichever countries you might be transiting through or the country of destination.”

On the other hand, she said, the restrictions on travel from a handful of southern African countries, which still remain on the books, are not valid.

“I don’t think it made a lot of sense, even when it was implemented a few weeks ago,” she said.

“At this stage, we see that the Omicron coronavirus variant has been identified in many countries around the world and, to be frank, I don’t think that the targeted measures at this stage will have a significant effect.”

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Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist with the University of Toronto, would like to see a more detailed explanation from the federal government as to why this advisory was put in place.

“You really have an obligation ethically, if you’re going to restrict freedom of movement, to explain to people exactly how this decision was made. We people have a right to know,” he said.

“I feel we’ve become so desensitized to major decisions that really restrict people’s lives. We’re so accustomed to it now that we don’t even expect explanations anymore. And I worry about that a lot.”

— with files from Global News’ Abigail Bimman and David Akin

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