OTTAWA — The federal government is banning foreign travellers to Canada from seven African countries amid spreading fears of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus that spooked financial markets and prompted a rush of travel restrictions around the world on Friday.
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Ottawa is taking “rapid” action to prevent a potential threat from this variant, and laid out five new measures to do so, just two days after the new variant was first reported.
The government is moving bar foreigners from Canada who have been to South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini and Namibia in the past two weeks.
A spokesperson for Duclos confirmed Friday that officials are working to implement the travel ban as soon as possible, and said it would be in effect by Sunday night at the latest.
The other four measures came into effect immediately on Friday, including a requirement for Canadians who have recently returned from southern Africa to isolate, get tested and remain in quarantine until they get a negative result.
Permanent residents and others with a right to enter Canada also now need to be tested for COVID-19 on arrival from the region, and will be required to quarantine until they receive negative testing results, Duclos said.
Ottawa is also urging Canadians not to travel to those seven countries, and will require those travelling from the region to get tested abroad before they arrive in Canada. Since there are no direct flights from the region to Canada, travellers are being told to get tested where they stop for their connecting flights, Duclos said.
“It may seem an overreaction from some perspectives, but it’s really following an abundance-of-caution principle,” he said.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra added that the situation is “another reminder” of the importance of vaccinations against COVID-19 and the ongoing severity of the pandemic crisis.
“We need to do everything in our power to prevent (the variant) from entering our country and be ready for it if it does,” Alghabra said.
After an emergency meeting on Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the new strain of the virus a “variant of concern,” and dubbed it with the Greek letter Omicron. The WHO said the new variant has a “large number of mutations” and that early evidence suggests it could carry an “increased risk of reinfection.”
The Omicron variant was first reported on Wednesday in South Africa, and has since been identified in neighbouring countries as well as more far-flung locations such as Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium, where a single case of infection was recorded in a woman who travelled to Egypt.
Canada’s chief public health officer said the mutations in the Omicron variant include changes in two “key areas” that could help the virus spread more easily and be more resistant to treatments, but there still isn’t enough evidence to be sure.
Dr. Theresa Tam also said she expects other countries to detect cases of Omicron in the coming days, and that the new measures are meant to be an added layer of protection for Canadians.
“I don’t think people should be surprised if we did get a detection” in Canada, Tam said. “What we’re trying to do is make sure that people who come from the area into the country are being quarantined.”
She added that officials will monitor countries where the variant has been detected and will react accordingly if more cases are reported.
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Canada is also willing to add travel restrictions to other countries, Duclos said. He said officials believe the banning of flights from the region by other jurisdictions and no direct flights from there to Canada provide this country with a sort of “double” protection from where the variant was first detected.
Barely two hours before Ottawa laid out the travel restrictions, the 27-member European Union also suspended flights from the region. The United States imposed similar restrictions on foreign travellers from eight countries in southern Africa, as did the United Kingdom, where the country’s top health adviser warned the new variant was the “most worrying so far,” the Guardian newspaper reported.
Earlier Friday, the federal Conservatives and Bloc Québécois called on the government to impose travel restrictions because of the variant. At Queen’s Park, Premier Doug Ford also called for measures to prevent infected people from entering Canada and spreading the virus.
“Our best defence right now is stopping this variant at the border,” Ford said in a statement.
The call from Ford and his federal Conservative cousins echoed criticism both camps have levelled at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals throughout the pandemic. In May, Ford launched a video ad campaign that blamed the federal government for contagious variants of the virus arriving from abroad, fuelling waves of infection in the province.
On Friday, Conservative MP Raquel Dancho picked up that line of attack, stating outside the House of Commons that the Liberals “have taken their time and sat on their hands to the detriment of Canada and to the spread of variants across our country.”
Officials in Ontario were also gearing up for the potential threat of the Omicron variant after easing back on testing for different strains two weeks ago.
Public Health Ontario said Omicron has not yet been detected in the province, where more than 99 per cent of positive COVID-19 test results that undergo genomic sequencing show the Delta strain that became dominant earlier this year.
While routine testing of positive COVID-19 samples for variants of concern was discontinued Nov. 12 because of the high Delta proportions, it will now be reintroduced to screen for Omicron.
“Results from this testing will help determine next steps,” Public Health Ontario said in a statement Friday. “Over the weekend, PHO will also screen all travel-related, positive COVID-19 samples that were submitted this month.”
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the possible dangers of Omicron make it “very scary for people worldwide” and called on Premier Doug Ford to improve ventilation in schools, shrink class sizes, make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for all health-care and education workers, and expedite booster shots.
“Ontario cannot rely on selective border closures alone,” she added.
The fears also sent jitters across global financial markets on Friday, with major airline stocks tumbling and the price of oil dropping seven per cent.
In a policy note sent on Friday, CIBC Economics chief economist Avery Shenfield warned rising infections in European countries like Germany and Austria could “bring back sterner health measures that might be more disruptive to economic activity than those that were abandoned.”
Shenfield said the need for prolonged health measures and expected booster shots will delay economic recovery, including an end to high inflation and production shortfalls.
With files from Heather Scoffield, Rob Ferguson and Star wire services
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga
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