OTTAWA — The latest COVID-19 update from the federal government included a promising heads up.
Talking about Liberal MP Joel Lightbound’s comments earlier this week, yesterday Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos noted that the federal government continues to review Canada’s COVID-19 measures. That includes measures at the border, he said.
“In short order we should be able to announce updates to border measures, next week,” said Minister Duclos.
Minister Duclos and Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, were asked about the COVID-19 positivity rate for travellers arriving in Canada.
“As one might expect with the omicron surge, that led to very high positivity rates in travellers … they surged to very high levels at the end of December and the beginning of January and they’re just beginning to come down. So by providing testing, and also the quarantine and isolation measures, that’s there to try to reduce that,” said Dr. Tam.
She added: “But we know that that’s not a perfect system and because of the nature of omicron and how infectious it is, it’s very difficult to prevent every case of importation and onward transmission.”
Minister Duclos pegged the positivity rate for travellers arriving in Canada during the omicron surge at 6 – 9%.
He later said that “here in Canada, we’re still in the midst of an omicron crisis. We’re not out of the woods yet. We will base our decision-making on science and prudence … given that we have several layers of protection, we can play off them.”
Also at yesterday’s briefing, a reporter asked if the travel advisory “still makes sense”. Canada’s travel advisory was lifted in October 2021 after close to 20 months, only to be reinstated on Dec. 15, 2021 as omicron caseloads ramped up exponentially worldwide.
In response Dr. Tam said: “As with everything that’s evolving, we are actively examining the advice for travellers. We never stopped people from leaving Canada. But the current advisory is avoid non-essential travel. It doesn’t stop individuals from doing so. But it is a really important message when omicron has been surging and still continues to surge around the world. But we are actively examining that as we are doing for other public health measures.”
CAC VOICES SUPPORT
Meanwhile the Canadian Airports Council is voicing its support for the Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable’s call to remove travel restrictions, including removing all testing and isolation requirements and blanket travel advisories.
At the Roundtable’s briefing yesterday at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, two doctors joined TIAC President Beth Potter to outline the inconsistencies with current testing requirements for international travellers. Two years into the pandemic, “the way we deal with travel needs to change,” said Dr. Zain Chagla, Medical Director, Infection Control at St. Joseph’s Healthcare.
CAC Interim President, Monette Pasher, says Canada’s airports support travel and tourism industry call to remove obstacles to international flights, including testing and advisories.
“Canada’s airports join the Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable in calling on the federal government to lay out a plan with a clear timeline for removing travel restrictions, including removing all testing and isolation requirements and blanket travel advisories,” said Pasher.
“Since the start of the pandemic, the safety and health of passengers and workers has been Canada’s airports number one priority,” she added. “Science has proven that air travel is safe. All Canadian travellers are fully vaccinated as is the industry that serves them. Since the pandemic’s start, less than one per cent of all cases of COVID-19 in Canada have been related to travel and testing at our borders is proven not an effective tool. Further, with PCR tests in such short supply and costly domestically, these tests could be more effectively used in our communities.”
Pasher notes that since the start of the pandemic, airports have seen $6 billion in revenue losses and $3 billion in new COVID-19 debt. “Until restrictions are lifted, and all airports reopened to international travel, these costs will continue to mount, jeopardizing our future competitiveness and connectivity,” she said.
“Canada’s airports fully support the expert medical opinion shared on February 10, 2022, calling on the federal government to remove unnecessary and non-science-based obstacles to international travel, such as the pre departure and on-arrival PCR tests for fully vaccinated travellers. The science tells us that air travel is safe. It is time to get Canadians – and our economy – moving again,” Pasher added.
“STEP BY STEP INTO ENDEMICITY”
Yesterday’s Roundtable briefing was picked up by many consumer media outlets, as the chorus of voices questioning the need for pre-departure and on-arrival PCR testing for fully vaccinated travellers gets louder.
As Dr. Chagla noted: “There are credible estimates from the Ontario Science Advisory Table suggesting that 1.5 to 4 million Ontarians were infected [with COVID-19] over the last two months. When 10 – 30% of your local population already got COVID-19 over the last two months, really, it becomes a little bit futile to try to prevent it coming over the border.
There is going to be a COVID risk with travelling, “but there’s going to be an equal risk the second you leave the airport and you go back to your home and into a high-risk setting,” he added.
Dr. Dominik Mertz, Medical Director of Infection Control, at Hamilton, ON’s McMaster University, said travel restrictions at their core are a zero-COVID strategy, “but Canada has not and realistically will not eliminate COVID-19. And Canada and the rest of the world will transition step by step into endemicity.”
Dr. Mertz also noted that less than 1% of Canada’s cases of COVID-19 have been associated with international travel. “Of course, this would have been higher if there were no restrictions or testing. But when you’re looking at what’s happening around us with community transmission, it’s extremely unlikely that the travellers that come in potentially positive will have any sizeable effect on transmission.”
TRANSAT FLIGHT ATTENDANTS UNION ONBOARD
Meanwhile, in line with other industry groups – including Tourisme Montréal, the Chambre de commerce du Montréal métropolitain, the Alliance de l’industrie touristique du Québec, Transat A.T and WestJet – the Air Transat flight attendants’ union, representing more than 2,000 members – says it supports the demands for a partial lifting of the restrictions imposed on the airline industry in Quebec and in Canada.
“The airline sector is without a doubt one of the most restricted by federal public health regulations. Our members and passengers must be vaccinated, PCR tests are required before boarding a flight and a test is required upon arrival in Canada. These measures are extremely costly for travellers as well as for the government. If these measures are not eased out soon, hundreds of jobs are at risk in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. The government’s management of our borders must be strongly challenged,” says Dominic Levasseur, President, Air Transat Flight Attendant Union.
“On top of the restrictions, hundreds of millions of dollars of public money are being granted to private testing companies when these funds could be allocated to the healthcare system and to the airline and tourism sector, which are in desperate need,” said Levasseur.
“We ask our governments to act quickly to reduce sanitary restrictions at our borders. These excessive measures are strangling Canadian companies like Air Transat! Our demands are simple, we must facilitate the relaunch of our industry,” he said. “Mr. Legault and Mr. Trudeau, help us!”
To date more than 60% of Air Transat flight attendants are still laid off, he added.