Ottawa will temporarily end random COVID-19 testing of incoming international passengers at Canadian airports.
Random testing at airports will be temporarily suspended at all airports starting on Saturday, June 11 until June 30, according to a joint statement from Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and Tourism Minister Randy Boissonnault.
Unvaccinated travellers will still be required to be tested on-site.
The government is also announcing that, as of July 1, all testing, including for unvaccinated travellers, will be performed off-site.
The news comes after federal public health officials said Friday they were looking at updating their advice to government on the random testing reuquirement.
Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam says the testing is not done to monitor travelers for infection, but rather as a way to measure emerging variants of SARS-CoV-2 that may be making their way into Canada from other countries.
“The random testing is not to detect every case. It is there to provide an early-warning system for variants of concern,” Tam said on Friday at a Public Health Agency of Canada press conference.
Deputy chief Dr. Howard Njoo said PHAC will be providing updated guidance regarding this random testing to lawmakers that could look at other ways to measure new variants of COVID-19 in Canada.
“I think we need to look at other ways to detect the virus. It doesn’t need to happen at the airport, it could happen elsewhere,” Njoo said in French during the press conference.
The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) has been urging the federal government for weeks to drop or at least temporarily pause the random COVID-19 test requirement for arriving international passengers, citing it as one of the main reasons for significant passenger delays and flight cancellations at the Pearson International airport in Toronto.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration announced Friday it will drop pre-departure COVID-19 testing requirements for air travellers this weekend after heavy lobbying from airlines and the travel industry in the United States.
Canada already lifted that same measure in April, allowing fully vaccinated travellers to arrive in Canada without a pre-entry COVID-19 test.
Pre-entry tests are still required for partially vaccinated or unvaccinated people over the age of 12 who are eligible to travel to Canada. Travellers who don’t meet the vaccine requirements may be turned away at the border, or be required to quarantine for 14 days or until their departure.
Tam said she believes the country is entering a “difficult” new phase, in which the necessity and effectiveness of all COVID-19 mandates, including vaccine mandates, are being questioned.
But she stressed the need to look at not only mandates, but all other ways to support individuals in making informed choices about how to keep themselves and their communities safe.
“We’re in a bit of transition period. We know what works – vaccines are important and getting up to date with vaccinations is important, and adding on top of that layer, masking does work. The question is whether they should be required versus a recommendation,” Tam said.
While the public and lawmakers may be focused on debating the merits of mandates, public health authorities are already preparing for a possible resurgence of the virus in the fall.
Keeping an eye on variants of concern emerging in other parts of the world that may be making their way into Canada is an important part of that preparation, Tam said.
“At the moment the sampling frame (at airports) is such that we can, and we have been, able to trend some of the incoming signals, for example, for BA.4 and BA.5,” Tam said, referencing two highly transmissible subvariants of Omicron that have been spreading around the world.
– with a file from The Canadian Press