The federal government announced Friday it will suspend the mandatory randomized arrival testing for incoming travellers at Canada's airports, a move that comes as the U.S. signals it will ease up on some testing requirements.
As a result, starting Saturday, June 11, only unvaccinated travellers will be required to take a test upon entry into Canada.
Up to now, fully vaccinated travellers were being subjected to random COVID-19 testing upon arrival.
The policy change is being billed as a "pause" because random arrival testing will be suspended between Saturday and June 30 — and the government plans to bring it back on July 1.
"It is important to note that [randomized testing] will be reinstated as this is the only way we have of detecting new variants coming into the country, given that provinces and territories are no longer doing any PCR testing," Marie-France Proulx, a spokesperson for Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, told CBC News.
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While the random arrival testing eventually will return, the government announced that, starting next month, all testing, including for the unvaccinated, will be moved off-site — meaning travellers will no longer be forced to give a sample for a test at the airport.
This change will mean airports can dismantle dedicated testing sites that have taken up space in the customs halls.
In an interview with CBC's Power & Politics, Tourism Minister Randy Boissonnault said the three-week pause in random testing will give the government time to set up off-site testing as the program shifts away from the country's airports.
"It's going to make sure that the airports flow more quickly. The airports aren't designed to be mini health care centres and so this will help with staff, it'll help with congestion," Boissonault said. "So this is a good step in the right direction."
It wasn't immediately clear what the shift to "off-site" testing will mean for arriving passengers.
Canada is one of the few Western countries that still has some form of arrival testing at this late stage of the pandemic.
Critics, including a number of public health experts, have said that this sort of testing regime is unnecessary now that there is widespread natural and vaccine-induced immunity to the virus. They've called the policy a bureaucratic burden that was adding to already lengthy delays at airports, which are grappling with clogged customs facilities.
The government has defended the arrival testing program as a way to track how many COVID-19 cases are slipping into the country. They've also said the program could be used to detect new virus variants of concern.
The U.S., which has never had arrival testing, announced Friday it will drop its pre-entry testing requirement for air travel. As of Sunday, U.S.-bound passengers won't have to get a test before boarding a flight.
Some of Canada's airports, most notably Toronto's Pearson International, have been plagued by hours-long delays in recent weeks. The federal government has been criticized for its handling of the often chaotic situation, which has left passengers stranded and staff stressed.
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The Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA), the organization that runs Pearson, has long urged the government to drop random arrival testing because the program causes delays.
GTAA also has said the already dire customs situation is likely to only get worse because the number of international flights arriving at that airport will increase by some 50 per cent in the coming days as airlines ramp up their summer schedules.
"The government of Canada recognizes the impact that significant wait times at some Canadian airports are having on travellers. We continue to work with airports, airlines, baggage handlers, and other partners to implement solutions to reduce delays as we approach the summer peak season," Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said in a statement announcing the arrival test changes.
Alghabra said the government has already hired an additional 800 Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) screening officers to help process the large volume of passengers transiting through airport security during the busy travel season.
To address the persistent backlog at customs, the government is adding more Canada Border Services Agency kiosks to Pearson's customs hall, Alghabra said.
The Opposition Conservatives have repeatedly urged the government to drop all testing requirements and end vaccine mandates, which force travellers to show proof of vaccination.
While the arrival testing program will be suspended, vaccine requirements remain.
All travellers will still be required to show that they've had their two shots — or one, in the case of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — before boarding a plane.
The government is also maintaining the vaccine mandate for transport workers and other federal employees — a policy which has been blamed for staff shortages among security, airport and airline workers.