Today (January 29), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced tough new international travel restrictions to curb the spread of fast-spreading COVID-19 variants in Canada.
On top of Ottawa’s new rules, Ontario has also announced new testing measures at Toronto Pearson International Airport as a “stopgap” measure until the federal testing program starts.
The federal government’s message to Canadians with March Break trips or other non-essential travel planned is simple: cancel your plans.
What travel restrictions are in place and what is different?
Last March, the government of Canada prohibited non-essential travellers from entering Canada and closed the U.S. border to non-essential visitors. The border closure has since been extended to February 21.
However, there are exceptions to the rules and there are no rules prohibiting Canadians from travelling abroad.
As of January 7, airline travellers must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of their departure time.
The new measures Trudeau announced on January 29 affect testing and quarantining protocol upon returning to Canada.
Ottawa has also come to an agreement with the major airlines—including Air Canada, Air Transat, WestJet, and Sunwing—to suspend all flights to “sun” destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico from January 30 to April 30.
Canada will also now require negative COVID tests for all non-essential travellers entering at land boarder crossings with United States.
Why is Canada undertaking the new measures?
The new restrictions are designed to discourage Canadians from travelling abroad for non-essential reasons.
Trudeau said the spread of highly transmissible new variants prompted the Public Health Agency of Canada to recommend stricter controls on international travel.
International travel has also become a political issue, with several politicians and public servants at all levels of government resigning over vacations. That includes Ontario’s former finance minister Rod Phillips, who resigned after going to St. Barts despite public health officials advising all Ontarians to stay home except for essential reasons.
However, the arrival of the U.K. coronavirus variant B117 in Ontario has raised alarm bells. Public health modelling in Ontario suggests the variant—which studies have shown transmits faster and could lead to more severe illness in some people—will be the dominant COVID strain in the province by March.
Although fewer than two percent of COVID cases are linked to Canadians coming home from abroad, the measures aim to limit spread of variants from the U.K., South Africa, and Brazil that could complicate the country’s ability to manage the pandemic.
“We saw that one travel case resulted in many, many cases in and around Barrie, Ontario,” Trudeau said. “One case of the variant that comes in could cause significant challenges. That’s why we need to take extra measures.”
What do I need to know if I am already overseas?
Airlines are reaching out to international travellers to organize return flights. Contact your airline for flight info and to find out if refunds are possible.
So far, Air Canada has said it will operate one-way commercial flights from affected destinations after January 31. The airline will also offer passengers full refunds.
If you are flying home after February 3, commercial, private, business, and charter flights will only be able to land at the country’s four largest airports in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary.
Previously, commercial flights from the U.S., the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America were flying into other Canadian airports. That will no longer be the case. The only exception is Saint Pierre and Miquelon.
What is the testing and quarantine protocol?
In addition to pre-boarding tests, Canada is mandating travellers take a PCR COVID-19 test at the airport. Travellers must pay for this test, which is administered by private companies so as not to sap resources from public testing.
Travellers will then head to a government-approved hotel and wait up to three days for their test results at their own expense, which Trudeau said is expected to be more than $2,000. He added the hotel bill must be paid in advance.
Travellers with negative test results can go home to finish quarantining for 14 days, as per government rules.
People who test positive will move to a “designated government facility” to make sure they are not carrying variants to finish their 14-day quarantine. They do not have to pay for their stay at the quarantine facility.
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said later on Friday that both positive and negative travellers will also be tested again on the 10th day of their quarantine.
Why do I have to pay for the test and hotel?
Canada’s Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair said Canadians should not be forced to pay for the decisions of people who decide to go against government advice and travel for non-essential reasons.
“If they are going to make that choice [then] they should bear the full cost and responsibility of all the measures that are necessary to keep Canadians safe as a result of the choices they made,” Blair said of travellers.
Other costs associated with the new protocols include transport, testing, security and “significant measures” to keep hotel staff safe.
“We don’t believe Canadian taxpayers 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,” he added. “Now is not the time to travel. Stay home.”
When will the mandatory testing take effect?
Ontario is introducing a mandatory testing as a “stopgap” until the federal testing program gets up and running in a few weeks. Travellers landing at Pearson International Airport in Toronto will start taking mandatory tests on February 1 at 12:01 a.m.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said on Friday (January 29) that public health officials already identified five cases of the U.K. variant via the province’s voluntary airport testing program.
The province is exploring additional testing measures at Pearson and at land border crossings in the coming weeks.
Ottawa has not given a start date for mandatory testing or explained why it will take a few weeks to get testing up and running.
Tam said today that COVID testing pilots at entry points in Toronto, Montreal, and Alberta have already started and will inform how the federal government will ramp up testing in the weeks ahead.
What will the surveillance of quarantining people involve?
People quarantining at home will now be under “significantly increased surveillance” and enforcement, the prime minister said.
Trudeau said Canada has hired a private security company and “will use its own personnel as well” to keep “a close eye” on people.
Starting today and tomorrow in Toronto and Montreal, security contractors will start doing more “door knocking” to check on people who are in quarantine, Tam said. The door-knocking will gradually expand to 35 cities.
Since last March, local police forces across the country—but not the Sûreté du Québec—have been active in helping with surveillance measures and enforcing federal quarantine rules.
“We hope to continue to work with all the police forces across the country,” Trudeau said.
What if I was vaccinated abroad?
Tam said people who have already received COVID-19 vaccinations are subject to quarantine rules at this time.
“There’s still some unanswered questions about the effectiveness of the vaccines in reducing transmission and the duration of protection,” she said. “But we expect those kind of questions to get answered in the coming months.”
She said international travel rules for vaccinated people is subject to “active discussion” between governments globally.
What if I’m an essential worker who has to travel?
Howard Njoo, Canada’s Deputy Chief Public Health Officer, said the new travel rules are focused on non-essential travellers. Canada is still examining other options for essential workers, like truckers.
“Perhaps there could be regular testing or other public health measures, individual health measures,” he said. “That’s what we’re analyzing right now. We’re also discussing these options with our provincial and territorial counterparts.”
The pre-boarding test is a requirement for essential workers. The list of exemptions from mandatory quarantine can be found here.
Why aren’t flights to Florida or other destinations cancelled?
Federal Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra said the government looked at the most popular vacation destinations and reached a “voluntary agreement” with the airlines to focus on suspending flights to those places.
Canadians travelling to the United States will be subject to pre-departure tests and testing and quarantining upon returning home, he said.