OTTAWA — To deter the potential import of new COVID-19 variants into the country, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced new restrictions and measures Friday to make the cost of travel more expensive.
New actions to discourage non-essential trips will come into effect Sunday, which will see the immediate suspension of flights by major Canadian air carriers to sunny destinations.
“The government and Canada’s main airlines have agreed to suspend service to sun destinations right away,” Trudeau said in a briefing outside his Ottawa home. “Air Canada, West Jet, SunWing and Air Transat are cancelling air service to all Caribbean destinations and Mexico starting this Sunday up until April 30th.”
On top of that, international flights will be triaged to four Canadian airports in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal. All travellers must currently report a negative COVID-19 test result, taken 72 hours prior to boarding Canada-bound flights.
Trudeau announced travellers will now be expected to quarantine in a “approved” hotel, at their own expense, for up to three days, while awaiting the results of a mandatory polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test upon arrival in Canadian airports.
That bill, he said, “is expected to be more than $2,000.” Trudeau said that figure factors in the extra costs hotels are absorbing to keep their workers safe and the cost of a private PCR test, for which travellers must personally pay the bill.
Travellers who test negative will be allowed to quarantine at home under “significantly increase surveillance and enforcement.” The federal government is hiring private security firms to support local police services in that effort. People who test positive are expected to move to a federal facility for a mandatory quarantine.
The prime minister also said that, “in the coming weeks,” non-essential travellers will need to show a negative test before entry at the land border with the United States.
The new actions add to an existing suite of travel-related rules Canada has had in place since March to deter the spread of COVID-19 infections. The Canada-U.S. border was closed to non-essential travel, and all out-of-country travellers are required to enter a mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival where any COVID-19 symptoms are monitored with daily app check ins.
The prime minister said “nothing is off the table” when he teased earlier this week that new restrictions were coming. He raised concerns at the time, though, that banning certain flights could disrupt supply chains. Friday, Trudeau said there was not a “tremendous amount” of commodities that will be affected by the cancellation of flights to sun destinations.
Friday’s announcement is a response to increasing concern over more-transmissible variants of COVID-19 and calls from premiers to crack down on international travel during a pandemic.
Modelling data released by Ontario Thursday showed that if current trends hold, the highly contagious U.K. variant will likely be the dominant strain pushing up positivity rates in the province by March, risking additional strain to the health-care system.
“We’ve seen public-health modelling that shows what happens if these variants do take hold in Canada,” Trudeau said. “We saw that one travel case resulted in many, many cases of the U.K. variant in and around Barrie (Ont.)”
When asked why the federal government is not targeting other sun destinations such as Florida, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said the federal government reviewed data that suggested “most Canadians” spend their vacations in the Caribbean and Mexico.
Alghabra said during a federal COVID-19 briefing that any travellers who return from U.S. destinations will also be subject to the same airport testing measures upon arrival in Canada.
With March break coming up, the federal government has repeatedly told Canadians to cancel any travel plans and stay at home.
Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the federal government has been “trying very hard” to “eliminate all discretionary non-essential travel.”
We don’t believe the Canadians taxpayer should be on the hook for paying any part of the cost for the choice and the decision that some individual has made to engage in non-essential discretionary travel.Public Safety Minister Bill Blair
He said people who travel despite guidance urging them to stay home “should bear the full cost and responsibility of all the measures that are necessary to keep Canadians safe as a result of the choices that they’ve made.”
Blair echoed what the prime minister said about the $2,000 bill travellers can be expected to pay, out of their own pocket, while they await the results of mandatory COVID-19 tests administered at airports upon arrival.
The costs doesn’t just cover the hotel room, he said, adding it also covers “significant measures” required to protect staff who work onsite, as well as additional security, testing, and transport measures.
“We don’t believe the Canadians taxpayer should be on the hook for paying any part of the cost for the choice and the decision that some individual has made to engage in non-essential discretionary travel,” said Blair.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Quebec Premier François Legault have pressed the federal government in recent weeks to introduce stricter border measures.
On Tuesday, Ford held a press conference at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport to praise the province’s pilot project that administered free and voluntary COVID-19 tests to all arrivals. He called on the federal government to do more.
He said the tests should be mandatory because “thousands of people continue to pass through Pearson every week without being tested.”
Legault made a suggestion last week that the government and taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the quarantine hotel bill for people who decide to travel during a pandemic.
To deter people from going in and out of the country, the Quebec premier pitched all travellers arriving from an international destination should be quarantined for two weeks in a hotel at their own personal expense.
Asked why he wasn’t pursuing even stricter measures, Trudeau said Canada was beefing up what are already some of the toughest restrictions among global allies. The government has struck a balance between “feasibility and maximum safety for Canadians,” he said.
“We’re doing this to keep as many Canadians alive and healthy as we can through this pandemic. We’re taking difficult measures now so that we can get through this quicker, so that we have less damage to our economy, to our industries, to our workers, to our lives.”
‘Canadian airline jobs are in jeopardy’: O’Toole
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole responded to Trudeau’s announcement by calling for a plan for when and how restrictions can be eased — and what percentage of Canadians must be vaccinated for that to happen.
“Canadian airline jobs are in jeopardy. We continue to see more airline workers lose their jobs and regional routes close – they have no idea when support from the Liberal government is coming, if at all,” O’Toole said in a statement.
“By now, Canadians should know when things are going to get better. The Liberals can’t keep asking Canadians to sacrifice more without being clear when restrictions can be eased.”
Currently, people who cannot self-isolate at home during the two-week quarantine period are eligible for space in a federal facility. Government officials have declined to outline the specific facilities used, offering only that they are hotels located near airports.
People are also eligible for lodging in a federal quarantine facility if they do not have private transportation to shuttle them from the airport to their destination, or if travellers live with a vulnerable person, or lack basic necessities to food and medicine for two weeks of isolation.
There are federal quarantine facilities all across the country in Whitehorse, Vancouver, Kelowna, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, Fredericton, and St. John’s.
The Public Health Agency of Canada housed 32 foreign nationals as of Oct. 7, 2020 in federal quarantine facilities, according to documents tabled in the House of Commons this week. This figure excludes the passengers of the Grand Princess cruise ship who were repatriated in March.
In the same period, approximately 765 Canadian citizens and permanent residents were lodged in federally designated quarantine sites.