Federal health minister won't say when mandatory hotel quarantine rule may be lifted

A traveller arrives for a mandatory hotel quarantine near Toronto’s Pearson Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic, February 22, 2021.

OTTAWA – Health Minister Patty Hajdu wouldn’t say Friday when her government will decide on recommendations from an expert panel to discontinue the mandatory hotel quarantine imposed on travellers coming to Canada.

The government’s own expert advisory panel reported Thursday that the hotel quarantine is not needed, is expensive and is inconsistent with the incubation period of the virus.

The program requires returning international travellers to quarantine for up to three days, while they await the results of a post-arrival COVID-19 test, staying in one of several approved hotels in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver.

In addition to costing as much as $3,000, there have been reports of assaults of quarantined travellers and some have caught COVID-19 while staying in the hotels. Some returning travellers have simply walked away from the requirement and accepted fines.

Other returning travellers have flown to U.S. airports and walked across the land border to avoid the quarantine requirement.

The panel recommended that the program be scrapped and that home-based quarantines be reduced to seven days. It also recommended that fully vaccinated travellers, with two doses of a vaccine, not have to quarantine at all and face only one COVID-19 test when they arrive. The panel said that people with one dose of the vaccine should be tested on their arrival and allowed to leave home-based quarantine as soon as they test negative.

Hajdu was asked repeatedly when the government would respond, but failed to give an answer. She said the government needs time to study the recommendations and consult with provinces before it decides to change the travel screening system.

“We want to make sure that we continue to protect Canadians from the importation of the virus, no matter what measures are at the border,” she said.

She defended the original decision to implement the quarantine saying the government wanted to ensure cases were caught before people had travelled across the country.

“We wanted to be able to have the results of those PCR tests before they continued on in another airplane to their smaller communities,” she said. “Those measures were put into place after a lot of conversations with provinces and territories who wanted stronger measures.”

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has been critical of the government’s existing travel measures and encouraged stricter measures at the border. Ford has called for a reduction in the number of international flights, mandatory quarantine for travellers arriving at the land border and PCR testing for domestic flights. Responding to the report Friday, Ford said it is clear the system is not working.

“I’ve been demanding a federal strategy to protect our borders for months now. So far, we’ve seen zero response from the prime minister, and it’s unacceptable,” he said to reporters.

Hajdu said part of the reason for her delay is to consult with provinces to ensure they are comfortable with a plan to ease travel restrictions.

“It’s really important that we have those conversations with the provinces and territories, so that we gauge their comfort, so that we understand their own domestic capacity and their perspectives on the report.”

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Canada has to be careful because while things are improving there is still work to do controlling the virus at home.

“When a country is still in the middle of a third wave, and we haven’t yet attained a good level of immunity from a population perspective, then it’s more difficult for us to tolerate importations,” she said.

Tam released new modelling Friday showing a continued decline in cases across the country, as vaccination rates climb, but she warned against dropping public health restrictions too quickly.

“While the forecast is very encouraging, it reaffirms that now is not the time to relax our measures. If measures are relaxed, increasing the number of community wide and personal contacts, resurgence is likely.”

Beth Potter, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, said she welcomed the advice from the expert panel. She said governments can’t stall on a plan to welcome international tourists if the industry is going to take advantage of its busiest time of year.

“What we need now is a commitment to a plan so that businesses can start to get ready to resume business

She said it’s much easier to shut down a business than to reopen one and the industry needs time to get ready. She said the industry doesn’t want to lose even more time.

“There’s a huge concern that not only will we lose another summer, but we could also lose the last quarter of the year. Travel is something that requires advanced booking.”

She said at a recent industry event, there was clear interest in Canada and people are even willing to jump through COVID-19 hoops, but they needed to know what the rules will be.

“People are eager to come back to Canada, and they just want to know how,” she said.

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Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques