OTTAWA—The federal government is poised to tighten Canada’s borders once again, advising Canadians against all non-essential travel and getting ready to ramp up border testing and quarantine measures, the Star has learned.
Those include requiring Canadians who do travel abroad to once again produce negative PCR tests upon return, even for short trips outside the country of 72 hours or less — a condition that was briefly lifted before the onset of the omicron variant.
The government had weighed a broader border closure, with a ban on foreign nationals other than essential workers, which would have stopped travelers including those from the U.S. from entering Canada at all entry points, including land and air. But the Liberals appeared to abandon that plan after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to premiers in a Tuesday night teleconference.
Incoming fully vaccinated travellers are to be tested on arrival and will have to quarantine at home while awaiting negative test results.
Following the telephone call between Trudeau and the premiers Tuesday night, multiple sources said the federal government was set to announce Wednesday when the travel measures are to take effect.
Ottawa is expected to reinstate travel advisories at level three, basically where the country was until October when it began to lift restrictions on fully vaccinated travellers coming and going.
Canadians, permanent residents, their dependants, refugees, and people who are entering under family reunification permits will still have a right of entry, said a source with knowledge of the measures.
On the call, Trudeau told premiers it is critical to reduce travel for non-essential reasons, but he did not indicate what the specific border measures would be, said a provincial source.
Two sources told the Star that Alberta Premier Jason Kenney pushed back at federal authorities, challenging the need for the travel measures if the variant was already in Canada.
Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam is said to have explained that the border restrictions will minimize the impact on the short term.
The measures including the proposed ban on foreign nationals were expected to drastically halt the flow of incoming traffic, and buy provinces and territories time to deal with Omicron.
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But it appeared after the call that ban was being reconsidered.
Last week, federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told reporters that despite a decision to test all incoming travellers, airports were only able to handle testing for about two-thirds of arrivals.
The main impact of the two measures that were under consideration would be “to significantly drive down the volume of travellers at the border, both air and land arrivals, because we’re also scoping in the U.S.” said one source, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the pending announcement. This would then allow more if not most people to be tested on arrival.
Some public health authorities have already reported community transmission (not linked to known travel cases) of the Omicron variant in Canada.
That includes Ottawa — where Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland had to bail on an in-person fiscal update speech to the Commons because staffers had tested positive for COVID.
Canadians expect all governments to use “all levers at their disposal so that we do not face the same situation as the U.K., Denmark or Sweden face,” said one insider.
“If we have less people coming in right now, we can do more testing. If we do more testing, we can do more contact tracing, if we do more contact tracing, we can do more control and limit the propagation of the variant. We can more easily and quickly identify a case, isolate that case and help that person avoid mass community spreading, although we already have community spread.”
“The whole idea is to protect our health-care system, because as opposed to March 2020, we don’t have the reserve of human resources. Hospitals are short-staffed across the country. Nurses are burnt out.”
A provincial source told the Star that Trudeau acknowledged the difficulty they all face, and recognized that with people fully vaccinated, “we don’t want to reduce Christmas gatherings for reasons of people’s mental health.”
Doubts were raised during the call with premiers that the federal government can deliver on its plan to ramp up border testing and quarantine measures, with at least one province, Quebec, telling Trudeau they do not have the personnel to send to border points of entry to increase testing.
With files from Robert Benzie, Susan Delacourt, Althia Raj
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
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