Advisory panel report calls on federal government to end quarantine hotels for air travellers

·5 min read

The federal government should end its policy of mandatory three-day quarantine stays in designated facilities for air travellers returning to Canada in favour of letting people come up with their own quarantine plans, says a new report on the effectiveness of Canada's border restrictions.

That recommendation and others are included in the fourth report by the federal government's COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel, which has been examining land and air border measures to screen for COVID-19.

The report says the mandatory three-day quarantine rule is flawed for a number of reasons — among them the fact that Canadians choosing to pay fines of up to $3,000 rather than go to designated quarantine facilities may not be following isolation precautions.

Passengers getting off international flights at Toronto’s Pearson airport were among the first to get mandatory COVID-19 tests earlier this year. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Passengers getting off international flights at Toronto’s Pearson airport were among the first to get mandatory COVID-19 tests earlier this year. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

The report says that the hotel quarantine program is expensive for both the government and travellers. It also says that because the rule requiring quarantine at government-authorized facilities only applies to air travellers, some Canadians are choosing to fly to U.S. airports near Canadian border points and finish the trip home by land. 

The report also warns that a quarantine stay of three days is "inconsistent with the incubation period of" COVID-19. 

On Feb. 22, the federal government implemented new quarantine measures at airports requiring all air travellers returning from non-essential trips abroad to isolate in federally mandated facilities for up to 72 hours while they await the results of polymerase chain reaction tests — commonly known as PCR tests — for COVID-19.

People arriving at land borders are required to take COVID-19 tests when they enter the country and again after they have isolated themselves at home for 14 days.

Measures won't stop variants: report

Asked earlier today whether it was time to eliminate quarantine hotels, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested Canadians should expect them to be around for some time to come.

"There is a point at which we are going to be able to say [quarantine hotels should be eliminated]. When that point arrives, it will be based on the best advice of scientists, doctors, of epidemiologists," Trudeau said.

"When the time comes we all look forward to that, but it's still not time for non-essential travel."

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has been asking the federal government to extend the three-day quarantine rule to Canada's land borders to prevent the introduction of variants of concern.

  A significant increase in testing capacity at airports ... could result in crowded conditions during peak travel times and thus lead to increased risk of transmission. - Report 

The report did say that "previous border measures were insufficient to prevent the importation" of variants, but cautioned that tightening up those measures to target specific countries of concern likely wouldn't work.

"It is important to note that by the time a variant is identified as being 'of concern,' it is highly likely to be present in many countries around the world," the report said.

"Therefore, excessive or 'targeted' focus on travellers arriving from a single country is likely to provide a false sense of reassurance and not materially impact the presence of a [variant of concern] in Canada."

The report identified five types of travellers permitted to enter Canada and made recommendations on how to screen each group, regardless of whether they enter the country by land or air.

The report says that exempt travellers, such as essential workers, should only have to take a PCR test voluntarily and should do so away from the border point, in a facility where their test can be monitored for quality.

Non-exempt travellers who have not been vaccinated should have to get a PCR test within 72 hours of travelling and then again upon arrival in Canada, says the report. It said that people who get negative PCR test results on day seven of self-quarantine should be able to leave quarantine, while those who don't should complete 14 days of isolation.

Non-exempt travellers who are partially vaccinated (with one dose of a two-dose vaccine) and test negative upon arrival using a PCR test should be able to leave self-quarantine, while those who do test positive should isolate "according to public health guidance," says the report.

The report says the panel suggested letting travellers leave self-quarantine after receiving negative test results on day seven because "studies indicate that a seven-day quarantine with a test at the end of the quarantine period may be similarly effective to a 14-day quarantine without testing."

Non-exempt travellers who are fully vaccinated, says the report, should not need to take a pre-departure PCR test but should either quarantine themselves or take a day-seven PCR test on top of the PCR test they are required to take upon arrival.

Watch: Panel member Dr. Isaac Bogoch on ending hotel quarantine:

Lastly, the report says that travellers who are non-exempt but can prove they recovered from COVID-19 more than 14 days prior to their arrival, but not more than 180 days before they travel, need to take PCR tests upon arrival. If they test clear, says the panel, they should be allowed to leave self-quarantine; if not, they should follow public health measures. 

To ensure that the process works, the report is advising the federal government to develop some kind of proof-of-vaccination certificate "as soon as possible."

The report also called on the federal government to develop a system for approving travellers' quarantine plans upon arrival and before travelling.

Premier Ford has also asked the federal government to implement mandatory PCR testing for travellers before they fly internationally, but the report said there would only be a "negligible marginal benefit" to testing onward travellers. 

The report said testing domestic travellers would require "a significant increase in testing capacity at airports, which could result in crowded conditions during peak travel times and thus lead to increased risk of transmission. Traveller test registration, swabbing, wait times, recording and referral times would result in a wait of up to 45 minutes."

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