OTTAWA — The federal government put off revealing its plan Friday to ease border-crossing restrictions for fully vaccinated Canadians because provinces demanded more details, especially on how and when rules will be loosened for other travellers even as they press for a July reopening, the Star has learned.
On Friday, the government said it will extend restrictions on non-essential international travel, and that Ottawa and Washington have agreed to keep Canada-U.S. border controls in place until July 21.
But it delayed until Monday any revelation of how it will eventually ease up controls, such as COVID-19 testing and quarantine requirements for those who are fully vaccinated.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking from his Rideau Cottage residence where he is quarantining after returning from a trip to the United Kingdom and Brussels, said the decision to keep the non-essential travel ban in place for another month was motivated by the desire to ensure broader vaccination coverage in Canada before opening up travel.
“We have to hit our targets of 75 per cent vaccinated with a first dose, at least 20 per cent vaccinated with the second dose, before we can start loosening things up,” Trudeau said.
While that sentiment is shared by premiers, a majority of them believe that target is well within reach and they want answers from the federal government about how it will lead the way through a staged reopening.
Canada has already vaccinated 75 per cent of its eligible population (anyone over 12 years of age) with a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and is on track to hit 20 per cent with a second dose as early as this weekend. With an influx of vaccine shipments through June and July, Canada is on track to have more than enough on hand to fully vaccinate 100 per cent of those eligible sooner than anticipated.
At a first ministers’ teleconference Thursday night, premiers told Trudeau they want Canada to achieve broader vaccination coverage in the next few weeks, but they wanted more detail about what would follow after the initial phase of relaxed measures is rolled out.
So far, Ottawa has only signalled it will ease hotel quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated Canadians and permanent residents and other exempt travellers, and allow people with negative test results before and after they arrive to forgo the rest of the 14-day quarantine that’s now required.
Six premiers — representing New Brunswick and all provinces west except Ontario — supported a July 1 reopening of borders and want to see a detailed reopening plan from the federal government, with Quebec’s Premier François Legault arguing for opening up to Europe by mid-July, said one provincial source.
A second source said there was no agreement on a specific date in the end.
Premier Doug Ford was among those who wanted to see vaccination rates higher — and especially more people fully vaccinated — before the reopening happens.
Two sources said there was optimism among the premiers that the vaccination campaign is quickening, and both said premiers remain concerned about the emergence of COVID-19’s highly transmissible Delta variant.
A senior federal source admitted to the Star’s Stephanie Levitz that provinces wanted to see more “metrics” and details about what follows the initial phase of reopening.
At the same time, the government continues to fine-tune a plan for how it will recognize the vaccination status of returning Canadians and foreign travellers.
Trudeau said provincial governments hold all data related to Canadians’ health and vaccination status. But a provincial source said no premiers have objected to sharing vaccination status with Ottawa.
The Star reported last week that in the early going, Ottawa plans to allow individuals to upload provincial vaccination certificates into the federal ArriveCAN app that was introduced during the pandemic to facilitate border entry for travellers, allowing them to upload contact information and quarantine plans.
But it has not developed a “national proof of vaccination” card or vaccine passport, and it is unclear if it will do so, at least not for several months.
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Trudeau confirmed that in the coming weeks, Ottawa will use the ArriveCAN app to allow inbound Canadians to upload their current provincial proof of vaccination when seeking to re-enter the country.
And Ottawa will work on a “national or pan-Canadian” document for the fall, for those who might be required to prove their vaccination status to travel abroad, Trudeau said.
The prime minister said Canada will recognize the four COVID-19 vaccines approved for use here: Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen shot, and downplayed concerns that people dosed with AstraZeneca will be “disadvantaged” if they want to go to the U.S., which hasn’t approved AstraZeneca.
Trudeau said Canada will continue to work with the Americans and other countries to ensure there is a consensus on how to recognize different vaccines, suggesting recognition of WHO-approved vaccines might be the way to go.
Canada is set to receive 13 million more Moderna doses than previously scheduled. Along with increased Pfizer-BioNTech deliveries, that should mean 55 million doses delivered by the end of June and 68 million doses by the end of July — more than enough to doubly vaccinate the eligible population of about 33.2 million Canadians over age 12.
Nevertheless, the government is not raising expectations Canada will reach that goal any sooner than the previously announced target of end of September. And it is cooling expectations that there can be any swift relaxation of travel restrictions.
In a statement Friday, Goldy Hyder, head of the Business Council of Canada, said he was “disappointed” at the extension of the Canada-U.S. travel controls.
“Our two countries have missed an opportunity to make amendments to the border agreement which would recognize the increasing number of people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19,” he said.
Hyder hoped that on Monday the government will heed the external panel’s advice and move to gradually ease certain restrictions on travellers.
“Canadians need a clearly articulated plan to reopen the border safely so that friends and families can be reunited, and businesses can welcome back travellers.”
Trudeau acknowledged it is “frustrating” for some business leaders, and industrial sectors that the government is moving slowly.
But he defended the phased-in rollout of travel changes, saying that vaccinations will protect an individual from developing severe disease, but it does not prevent a returning traveller from passing it on to others who are not fully vaccinated.
“That’s why it’s not just about saying, ‘OK if you’re fully vaccinated, yeah, have fun, go with it, run around’ — it’s about saying that you’re still returning to a country where we haven’t reached a high enough threshold of second-dose vaccinations. Now we’re getting there … but that’s why we’re looking at a phased approach to easing border restrictions.”
A federal expert advisory panel on COVID-19 testing and screening has laid out a road map for how the government should ease restrictions on five groups of travellers: fully vaccinated, partially vaccinated, unvaccinated, previously infected, and exempt travellers.
Asked why he doesn’t listen to the scientific advisers and lift the hotel quarantine altogether, Trudeau said he has listened to a range of differing advice from different experts, and the three-day hotel quarantine was to ensure people had a negative on-arrival test result before they returned to their communities.
The Federal Court of Canada on Friday upheld the government’s hotel quarantine scheme against a challenge by travellers arriving without a negative pre-departure COVID-19 test, saying while their liberty was deprived, it was done in accordance with principles of fundamental justice so their Charter rights were not violated.
The court noted changes were made so that travellers are now informed of the location where they are held and of their right to counsel. But the court also said that Ottawa could impose even stricter measures if certain conditions under the Quarantine Act were met.
With files from Stephanie Levitz
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
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