Canada has extended its ban on direct flights from India and Pakistan until June 21 to help control the spread of new variants of the novel coronavirus.
The previous 30-day ban, first imposed on April 22, was set to expire Saturday.
Cargo flights will still be permitted in order to maintain shipments of essential supplies, such as vaccines and personal protective equipment.
"Minister of Transport is of the opinion it is necessary for aviation safety and the protection of the public," said a notice to airmen, or NOTAM, to halt direct passenger air traffic from those countries.
The ban applies to direct flights from both countries. Passengers can still fly to Canada from India or Pakistan by arriving via a third country. They will need to produce a negative result on a COVID-19 test taken at their last point of departure before being allowed to enter Canada.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra confirmed the news at a government pandemic briefing Friday.
Alghabra said the restriction was put in place "based on public health advice to reduce the importation risk of COVID-19 and its variants."
"I can say that we've seen a significant reduction in the number of positive cases of COVID-19 arriving from international flights since this restriction was put in place," he said.
Alghabra said the government would continue adapting border restrictions as conditions change and did not give a firm date for lifting the ban.
Dr. Howard Njoo, Canada's deputy chief public health officer, said that travel restrictions are important given that roughly 70 per cent of new coronavirus cases in Canada are variants of concern.
"It's another layer of protection," he said.
"It's important to have these measures in place, and we recognize that although importation of variants is a small part of what's happening with respect to the situation in Canada, anything we can do in terms of that added layer is important at this time."
Last week, Air Canada proactively extended the flight ban from India in anticipation of the government's announcement.
Air Canada does not fly to Pakistan.
All travellers arriving in Canada by land or air have to show a negative COVID-19 test and quarantine for two weeks; some exceptions are made for essential workers. Air passengers must quarantine for up to three days at an approved hotel while awaiting COVID-19 test results, and must test again eight days after arrival.
Concerns about variant
According to epidemiological data from the Public Health Agency of Canada, only 0.6 per cent of all air travellers entering Canada were found to be COVID-19-positive in the week ending May 8 — the latest data available.
All incoming air travellers who test positive for the virus undergo whole-genome sequencing to identify the variant.
The B.1.617 variant first identified in India late last year – which is driving a record surge in new cases in that country – has been found in Canada. Between Feb. 22 and May 6, 279 air travellers tested positive for that variant, PHAC data show.
"We know that there have been cases detected in provinces and territories, and there may be some early signs that we already have some community transmission," said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, in a May 14 briefing.
"This variant shows increased transmissibility ... Measures would be taken to manage the transmission of this variant as we have for other variants."
India has become a global hotspot for the coronavirus.
On Wednesday, the country reported more coronavirus deaths in a single day than any other country at any time during the pandemic, while infections continued to spread through rural areas with weak health systems.
The country's health ministry reported a record 4,529 deaths, driving India's confirmed fatalities to 283,248. It also reported 267,334 new infections as daily cases remained below 300,000 for the third consecutive day. The numbers are almost certainly undercounts.
Last week, the World Health Organization said the B.1.617 variant was being classified as a variant of global concern.
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