Canada's COVID-19 border problem exposed: Public health agency didn't know if most travellers followed quarantine rules, auditor general report reveals

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) was "not as well prepared as it could have been" to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and "underestimated" the impact of the virus in the early stages, an audit by Canada's auditor general found.

"The agency was not adequately prepared to respond to the pandemic, and it underestimated the potential impact of the virus at the onset of the pandemic," the report from auditor general Karen Hogan states. "Not all emergency and response plans were up to date or tested, and data sharing agreements with the provinces and territories were not finalized."

"We fully accept the auditor general’s finding and of course agree with the recommendation that a much stronger focus on public health and pandemic preparedness must be part of Canada's plans now and into the future," Minister of Health Patty Hajd said in response to the release of the report.

Problems at the Canada-U.S. border

Specifically on the border, the audit found that PHAC did not know whether two thirds of incoming travellers followed quarantine orders.

The auditor general's report determined that although PHAC and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) implemented the border and quarantine measures under the emergency order, from May 5 to June 30, 2020, PHAC was unaware whether 66 per cent of incoming travellers who were required to quarantine were doing so.

"The agency referred few of the travellers for in-person follow-up to verify compliance with orders," the report states.

"We found that, during the period from 31 March to 30 June 2020, the Public Health Agency of Canada did not always meet the targets it set to verify whether travellers subject to the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon entering Canada were following the quarantine orders."

MISSISSAUGA CANADA, Feb. 22, 2021 -- A traveler wearing a face mask walks with his luggage to a COVID-19 testing site after arriving at Toronto International Airport in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, on Feb. 22, 2021. Starting from Monday, travelers arriving in Canada by air are required to take a COVID-19 molecular test before they exit the airport. They are also required to quarantine for three days at a government-designated hotel at their own expense until they get a result. (Photo by Zou Zheng/Xinhua via Getty) (Xinhua/Zou Zheng via Getty Images)

The review from the auditor general found the due to "limitations of public health information" PHAC could not track and trace COVID-19 cases to see if they are connected to travellers who had not been been following Canada's 14-day quarantine rule.

"Of the individuals considered to be at risk of non-compliance, the agency referred only 40 per cent to law enforcement and did not know whether law enforcement actually contacted them," the report states. "The agency had not contemplated or planned for mandatory quarantine on a nationwide scale and, as a result, had to increase capacity to verify compliance."

Minister Hajdu highlighted that there has been "improvement" in Canada's capacity to do "direct checks" on people who must quarantine.

"I will say that our evidence shows that since Apr. 1, 2020, when mandatory quarantine was implemented, in fact, 96 per cent quarantine compliance rate, 98 per cent quarantine compliance rate based on law enforcement," Hajdu said. "We had over two million verification calls since March 8, over 70,000 in-person visit."

The report also indicates that CBSA "mobilized quickly to provide guidance to its border services officers on restricting entry to Canadian citizens, permanent residents, and essential workers."

PHAC and CBSA worked collaboratively to develop guidance for border officials but CBSA "had not verified whether border services officers had properly exercised their judgment in determining the exemptions for essential workers for entry into Canada and for mandatory quarantine."

The recommendation is that the CBSA, with PHAC, should ensure that border officer have "the appropriate guidance and tools to enforce border control measures imposed to limit the spread of the virus that causes COVID‑19."

"I was very pleased that the auditor general recognized the strong response of the Canada Border Services Agency and specifically, the auditor found that border restrictions were quickly enforced, the CBSA acted quickly to provide guidance to the border service officers on restricting entry to Canadian citizens, permanent residents and essential workers, and the the Public Health Agency of Canada and CBSA worked collaboratively together," Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair said.

"I want to acknowledge that consistent application of these new border measures….can be improved."