An industry group is urging Ottawa to scrap some COVID-19 measures at Canadian airports as international travellers continue to be bogged down by lengthy delays.
The Canadian Airports Council is calling on the government to drop random tests and public health questions at customs to ease the serious delays arriving passengers face.
Those measures make it four times longer to process people as they arrive than it did before the pandemic, according to Monette Pasher, interim president of the Canadian Airports Council.
While it was fine when fewer people were travelling, it has become a serious problem now with more traffic at airports, she told The Canadian Press.
But with COVID-19 still circulating globally, is now the right time to drop the protocols, even if it means easing the pain for travellers and airports? Health experts aren’t so sure.
“These are unfortunate requirements that are necessary to keep security within our country, and in this case, we’re talking about security from new viral variants,” said Dr. Craig Jenne, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Calgary.
“They are inconvenient but they are, at this time, still a necessity.”
Regular travel demands and COVID-19 rules 'can’t coexist'
Airports are not designed for customs to be such a lengthy process, Pasher said, and the space is not available to accommodate too many people. Airports are also no longer the right place for COVID-19 tests since tests are rarely required in the community now due to testing policy changes, she said.
“Getting back to regular travel with these health protocols and testing in place, the two can’t coexist without a significant pressure and strain on our system,” Pasher said.
Ottawa has already changed its border rules this year, but they must be constantly revisited and tweaked if the situation — at home but especially abroad — allows for it, said Dr. Omar Khan, a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Toronto.
“If there is pressure from the airport association to have a look at them, then yeah, there should be a conversation to see (if) these policies (are) indeed protecting people the way we think they should and is the benefit from having them in place still there?” he told Global News.
“If they’re not and the tangible benefit isn’t there, then maybe see if there are other ways to ensure people are protected. But we’d have to see more clear data from the airport administrations to see what their argument is, and then also look at it from an epidemiological point of view.”
COVID-19 airport travel-related cases low
COVID-19 testing at Canadian airports have been returning less positive tests over the past few weeks, government data shows.
Between May 1 and May 7, about 2.6 per cent of 25,053 fully-vaccinated travellers tested at airports were COVID-19 positive. Between April 17 and April 23, about 3.4 per cent of 26,451 fully-vaccinated travellers tested at airports were COVID-19 positive.
Nationally, 39,126 tests were performed across Canada between May 1 and May 7, the government said in its latest weekly epidemiology report published May 13. The country logged 24,001 cases during that time, a decrease of 26 per cent compared to the week before.
The number of new reported cases “should be interpreted with caution” due to changes in testing policies across Canada in January, resulting in underestimation, the government said.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, public health measures designed to limit the spread of the virus have scaled up and down as waves of the virus have come and gone.
Today, they are the least restrictive they have been in months across the country, with some provinces no longer requiring mask wearing indoors and increasing gathering sizes.
However, while the provinces are responding to what is happening within their own communities, Ottawa needs to continue to understand what’s coming into the country and how it may impact the pandemic, Jenne said.
“We still have a number of very bad viral hotspots … (that) do present a risk of new viral variants emerging in Canada,” he said.
The World Health Organization said last week new COVID-19 cases reported worldwide continued to fall except in the Americas and Africa, but has warned the world is “blind” to how the virus is spreading because of falling testing rates.
“So as long as there’s a continual threat, and a high threat of new variants globally, we need to be ensuring that those are detected at the border,” Jenne said.
“Random testing, although less effective than screening everybody, is a compromise that we are getting a surveillance of what’s coming in without requiring every individual to test in quarantine that is travelling internationally.”
‘We're not back in a COVID-free 2019 world’
Ottawa is working with the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority to post more screening officers at checkpoints, and the agency is working on hiring even more to ease the pressure at the airports, a spokesperson for the transportation minister said.
The government will not ask airlines to cut back their flight schedules either, they added.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the minister of health told Global News Ottawa is “continuously” reviewing its border policies so they are “current and relevant to protecting the health and safety of Canadians.”
“We are aware of long lines and delays at airports across the country and understand traveller frustration. As traveller volume increases, we have worked to build efficiencies and additional capacity at the border. However, travellers should still be prepared to potentially face longer wait times, especially when arriving during peak times,” they said.
All air travellers should be completing their ArriveCAN submissions before landing to expedite their entry into the country, the spokesperson added.
With restrictions easing across the country, yet some remaining at points of entry, Canada finds itself in a tough position that it needs to sort out as COVID-19 continues to change, said Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, assistant professor of medical microbiology and infectious diseases at the University of Manitoba.
“We’re not back in a COVID-free 2019 world. The virus is still circulating, we’ve learned a lot, we’re in a different situation than we were in 2020 but the situation continues to evolve around us,” he said.
“A big part of this is trying to figure out where is that kind of comfortable spot where things can be reduced and reopened and restrictions removed, but we are still able to get enough surveillance coverage that we can identify things as quickly as needed.”
— with files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press
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