Hundreds of thousands of travellers at Toronto Pearson to be tested for COVID-19 in early 2021

A person wearing a mask walks through Toronto Pearson Airport's Terminal 1 on May 20, 2020.

OTTAWA — The Ontario and federal governments are preparing to unveil a joint COVID-19 rapid testing program at the province’s biggest airport as early as next week, as both sides seek to deflect blame for a growing number of travel-related cases entering Canada.

A spokesperson for Ontario Premier Doug Ford said a new pilot program to test international travellers entering Canada through Toronto Pearson International Airport would be unveiled “in the early new year.” The plan is likely to test roughly 315,000 travellers for COVID-19 over a three-month period, but the arrangement has not yet been finalized, the person said.

Those hopes come after weeks of failed negotiations between the two governments, who have sparred in recent weeks after Premier Ford claimed that Ottawa has failed in its duty to secure the Canadian border during the pandemic.

“We’ve continually — and I’m going to repeat this, continually — asked the federal government to secure our borders,” Ford said in a press conference last week, when he imposed sweeping new lockdowns across the province.

Ford denounced the federal government in particular for what he called a failure to enforce mandatory testing at airports, which he said has in turn raised the overall number of new cases in the province. Some critics viewed his comments as an attempt to deflect blame for rising COVID-19 cases in the province.

Ford’s concerns have taken on a heightened urgency in recent days after a new strain of COVID-19, first identified in the U.K., was confirmed in Ontario this weekend. Quebec on Tuesday also confirmed its first case of the variant, which is thought to be much more contagious than earlier strains.

Ford’s comments prompted some pushback from the federal health and public safety ministers, who sought to reiterate some of the measures they’ve introduced, including penalties for travellers who do not abide by the 14-day quarantine period and rudimentary contact tracing efforts.

The Public Health Agency of Canada issued a press release on Tuesday that again repeated those measures, saying the federal government “continues to advise against non-essential travel and reminds all travellers returning to Canada that contravening the mandatory quarantine can lead to severe penalties.”

More than 180 contract tracing officials are currently making over 4,600 calls per day to identify potential cases, PHAC said. Authorities have so far levelled 130 fines and charged another eight travellers who broke quarantine rules or other directives. “Verbal warnings” have been issued to 185 people, and written warnings to 20, the department said.

Federal ministers have sought to distance themselves from criticism over border security, and have said they are working with some provinces to introduce testing at airports.

“I’m surprised by the Premier of Ontario’s comments,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu said in response to Ford last week. “We have been working with his government on his request to conduct a testing pilot project at Pearson International Airport for weeks.”

Alberta partnered with the federal government in October to begin a pilot testing program at the Calgary airport and Coutts border crossing to identify positive COVID-19 cases.

Differing views over border security also comes amid recent media reports of politicians taking personal trips outside the country in recent weeks, raising fresh doubts over whether some are prepared to endure the restrictions they impose. Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips took

an international trip with his wife

in mid-December, just weeks before the Ford government imposed strict lockdowns on the province.

And Quebec Liberal MNA Pierre Arcand is currently in the West Indies with his wife. In a statement obtained by Presse Canadienne, the former interim leader of the Quebec Liberal Party confirmed he was in Barbados, “one of the safest places in the world right now,” and that he regretted his decision “given the current situation in Quebec and the respect we owe to health workers.”

 Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips takes questions during the daily briefing at Queen’s Park in Toronto on May 11, 2020.

The trips come at a time when federal authorities have repeatedly advised against non-essential international travel, and as Ontario and Quebec plead with people to follow pandemic restrictions.

International travel accounts for only a small portion of new COVID-19 cases, according to public figures. But data on international travel is limited due to the absence of testing at airports, and people have continued to flow in and out of the country even as pandemic restrictions remain in place.

Over the last two weeks, government officials have identified 24 international flights entering Pearson airport with positive COVID-19 cases. Another 10 positive flights departed Toronto to other destinations, including three to Delhi. Other positive cases left Toronto for Mexico City, London and Dublin, among other destinations.

The proposal to test just over 300,000 travellers entering Pearson airport over three months is a fraction of the roughly 750,000 total travellers who arrive over the same period, according to public data.

Ontario officials in November initially proposed testing 900,000 travellers over six months, which was ultimately rejected by the federal health department, according to one provincial official.

Ontario currently has the capacity to test roughly 100,000 people per day, province-wide.

Total new infections in Ontario from travel have been sizeable, but much smaller than those caused by community spread, potentially because travel-related infections are confined to single aircraft. As of Dec. 27, a total of 3,945 travel-related COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in Ontario — 114 of which arrived in the last week.

By comparison, “community spread” has been responsible for 33,276 cases, and “close contact” cases for 71,310, according to government data.

With files from the Montreal Gazette

Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques