‘Worst we’ve seen so far’: New COVID-19 variant Omicron is ‘highly transmissible’, Canada unveils new travel restrictions

·5 min read

The World Health Organization has classified the new COVID-19 variant found in South Africa, 'Omicron'. As concerns grow about the 'highly transmissible' variant, the Canadian government has introduced travel restrictions and a ban on foreign nationals coming into the country from seven African countries.

These five measures, which will be in place until Jan. 31, 2022, include:

  • Banning the entry of foreign nationals into Canada who have travelled through seven Southern Africa countries in the last 14 days. These seven countries are South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini and Namibia.

  • For all individuals who have arrived from the above countries in Canada in the last 14 days, they must now quarantine and to go for a COVID-19 test. These individuals need to stay in isolation until they get a negative result.

  • Canadians and permanent residents who have travelled to any of the Southern African countries within the last 14 days must have proof of a negative COVID-19 molecular test, taken within 72 hours of their scheduled departure to Canada. They will be tested on arrival and must stay at an approved quarantine hotel until they get a negative result. They can then continue their quarantine at home until their Day 10 test result comes through.

  • As there are no direct flights from Southern Africa to Canada, Canadians returning from that region through an indirect route will need to obtain a negative COVID-19 pre-departure test, from a third country, before continuing their journey to Canada.

  • Global Affairs Canada will issue a travel advisory asking all Canadians to not travel to Southern Africa for the time being.

Is Canada doing enough?

Minister of Health, Jean-Yves Duclos, called this a "belt and suspenders" approach.

It may seem like an overreaction from some perspective, but it’s really to be following an abundance of caution principal. We really want to make sure that we do all we can and need to do to protect the health and safety of Canadians."Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Health

In terms of the risks for Canadians at this point, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, stressed that we know "very little" about this variant, including how transmissible it is, whether it increases severity of illness and its impact on vaccines. But she did say that people should not be surprised if this variant is detected in Canada.

"We still don't know if it’s more transmissible," Dr. Tam said. "There’s certainly signals in South Africa itself that in one region, one of the localized areas, that there’s been an acceleration in the number of cases."

"We still don't know whether that’s because they have more relaxed public health measures or whether this virus has gained a biological advantage over what’s already present in Southern Africa."

As we head into the holiday season, Canada's chief public health officer stressed that Canadians should "exercise a degree of caution" over the Christmas and New Year period.

"I know people are very anxious to get back to their social settings but I think that keeping on the layer of protection, masking, ventilation and distancing, and gathering with people that you know, and you know their vaccination status, and keeping as many layers of protection is really important, for now," Dr. Tam said.

Calls from provincial leaders

Canadian premiers called on the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to halt flights to countries in Africa where this variant has been recorded.

"I was briefed by Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health, about the new variant that's been found in several countries in Africa that early reports suggest could be vaccine resistant," a statement from Ontario Premier Doug Ford reds.

We cannot repeat the same mistakes that allowed the Alpha and Delta variants to enter our country. Our best defense right now is stopping the variant at the border. Until we are certain that the vaccines are effective against this new variant, I am calling on the Government of Canada to follow other governments by immediately banning all flights and passengers from countries of concern.Ontario Premier Doug Ford

Ford's statement also calls for an additional requirement that anyone arriving before this flight ban can be implemented be tested and quarantined, in addition to reintroducing testing on arrival for all travellers coming to Canada, regardless of the country they are travelling from.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney echoed the Ontario premier, also calling for a flight ban from countries where this variant has been detected.

"I call on the federal government to follow Britain’s lead by banning travel from countries where this dangerous new COVID19 variant is circulating," a tweet from Kenney reads. "Canada must not repeat the mistake of its open-borders policy at the beginning of the global pandemic."

This comes after the U.K. suspended flights from six African countries (South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe), after this "super variant" was called "worst we've seen so far" by authorities.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also said flights from Africa should be suspended.

"They should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant and travellers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules," she said.

"We do know that mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more concerning variants of the virus, that could spread worldwide within a few months. It is now important that all of us in Europe act very swiftly, decisively and united."

Belgium has confirmed one case of this variant, the first in the European Union, with additional cases detected in Hong Kong and Israel.

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