OTTAWA—The federal Liberal government, faced with multiple demands by a beleaguered Ontario government to take more action on COVID-19, said it would consider a surprise request to suspend the entry into Ontario of international students.
It comes as a physician at an Ontario university raised the alarm, telling the Star two students who arrived from India prior to last week’s ban on direct flights since tested positive with coronavirus variants. And last week, a university nurse swabbed 12 students, from 12 different countries, several of whom since tested positive for COVID-19.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said no other province has raised it as a concern, and his office would work with Ontario to “formalize” the request and how to address it.
Hours later, however, Premier Doug Ford’s office issued a statement saying it had “not made a formal request to ban international students, but (we) look forward to the federal government providing solutions to reduce the importation of cases and introduction of variants into Canada.”
It was another bizarre day of back-and-forth between the two levels of government, as pressure mounts on Ford to stem the third wave of COVID-19.
Ford is under fire for his handling of the third wave that has hospitals buckling with a record level of COVID-19 patients in intensive care. Critics say he should have imposed stricter public health measures sooner after his science advisers warned publicly that variants would be dominant in March and leave “little room for error.”
On Friday, Trudeau deflected Ford’s other demands to impose mandatory hotel quarantine on people who drive or walk across the U.S. land border or to require negative COVID-19 tests for domestic interprovincial flight passengers.
And though Trudeau didn’t say “No,” he made clear that improved sick leave is up to Ontario to legislate and deliver.
The prime minister said Ford himself could impose stricter interprovincial travel limits like the Atlantic Provinces and northern territorial leaders did.
Trudeau defended current international travel measures which mandate pre- and post-arrival negative COVID-19 tests and a minimum three-day hotel quarantine for air travellers, but not at the land border. Trudeau said all travellers are subject the same testing requirements, and to a strict 14-day quarantine period no matter how they enter. The prime minister noted non-essential traffic has already been reduced to about five per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
It wasn’t good enough for Ford who said the variants “got in because of weak border measures.”
“If I had the power I would close Pearson airport immediately,” Ford told reporters during an online news conference in the backyard of his late mother’s home where he has been self-isolating for over a week after exposure to a staffer who tested positive for COVID-19.
“I would shut down the land border crossings to only those who are absolutely essential because I would do anything within my power to stop a vaccine-resistant variant from getting into our country and bringing a fourth wave with it.”
Closing Pearson could nix important cargo shipments that arrive on passenger flights.
Trudeau, however, made a point to underline that many things are within Ford’s power.
The prime minister offered to send more rapid tests for use by Ontario and other provinces despite “millions upon millions” going unused across the country.
And Trudeau said it is provinces like Ontario which designate schools they believe have safe controls for handling international students. Based on that, Ottawa agreed last year to exempt those students from the non-essential travel ban.
But the campus controls for students who go directly to student residence to quarantine (and are not held at a hotel) are insufficient, said a physician who spoke to the Star. The Star agreed not to identify her or the southern Ontario university where she works because she was not authorized to speak publicly.
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“It’s frustrating to see the university continue to solicit students from pandemic hot spots,” she said, adding that for the university, the international students are a “cash cow.” They pay top dollar to come for “experiential learning” and a cultural experience, many to learn English as a second language, but with all learning online anyway, none should be coming in, she said.
“When one of these students got swabbed and we told him he was ill and he had to quarantine and he couldn’t leave the room, he said ‘Well, this totally isn’t the experience I was expecting to get when I came to Canada.’ In the middle of our third wave of the pandemic,” she added in frustration.
Pre-pandemic, nearly 307,000 international students, almost half of all Canada’s international student population, studied in Ontario in 2019, according to Statistics Canada. It is not clear how many international students would be affected by any such suspension.
Trudeau on Friday insisted that international travellers don’t pose the greatest risk.
“Importation through the borders is extremely low in terms of cases in the country. It’s not zero,” he admitted, but measures at the border have been “effective in controlling the importation of cases and making them not the primary vector for new cases in this country.”
Trudeau, chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam and her deputy Dr. Howard Njoo said the biggest problem is community transmission, with Njoo suggesting the call for more border measures is misplaced. It is “detracting from what the primary focus should be from a public health perspective,” Njoo said.
An Ontario critical care physician at Toronto’s University Health Network posted on Twitter that Ford should concentrate more on controlling transmission from person-to-person in the province.
“The variants are predominant now,” said Dr. Kali Barrett. “They are spreading in communities and in workplaces. Closing the borders will not fix the problem that currently exists in workplaces and communities.”
The premier cited the relatively new B.1.617 variant first identified in COVID-ravaged India as a threat spreading in Ontario, although it is not yet classified as a variant of concern by Public Health Ontario.
“Last week, the new Indian variant was reported here in Ontario and it didn’t swim here, I can tell you that,” Ford added.
Ford said he will continue to push the Trudeau government to allow Ontario to provide a $500 weekly top-up to workers on the federal sick pay benefit that provides just $500 a week.
That’s less than minimum wage and would be in addition to a new program Ford’s Progressive Conservative government passed Thursday to provide three paid sick days for workers — which his science advisers say is short of the 10 days needed.
But the prime minister made clear it is up to Ontario to legislate better mandatory job protections and paid-sick leave of employers.
“The best sick pay is the one that you can wake up in the morning feeling like you have symptoms that are problematic, you can pick up the phone, call your employer and say ‘I’m not coming in’ and know it’s a sick day you will continue to be paid for,” said Trudeau. “That’s not something the federal government can deliver, with the exception of federally regulated industries…it is the provinces and territories who are able to work with employers to mandate that kind of sick leave.”
Trudeau said the sickness benefit his government enacted last year would always be “most effective for gig workers, uber drivers or others who don’t necessarily have a direct employer who can grant them sick leave.”
He admitted that, “yes, it is a less efficient and immediate process to get people sick leave than to go directly through the employer.”
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1
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