MONTREAL — The federal government defended its approach to securing Canada's border against COVID-19 on Tuesday as Ontario Premier Doug Ford once again called for more testing at points of entry.
Canada's border controls — and the 14-day quarantine requirement for returning travellers — are among the strictest in the world, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair told reporters.
"Over the past few days, we've heard a number of comments which, frankly, are an unfortunate misrepresentation of what is actually happening at our borders," Blair said.
"COVID-19 cases related to international travel currently account for only 1.8 per cent of all cases. That means 98.2 per cent of COVID transmissions are a result of community transmissions, not international travel."
Canada's deputy chief public health officer, Dr. Howard Njoo, said that while Ottawa is always evaluating its approach at the border, its main concern is transmission within Canada. "What we're seeing now is that the biggest problem in Canada is community transmission inside Canada, it's not really the importation of cases," Njoo told reporters.
Blair and Njoo's comments followed criticism from Ford, who said Monday that Ottawa needs to do more to prevent travellers from bringing the novel coronavirus into the country.
Ford hit the federal government again on the issue Tuesday, telling reporters that Canada must require travellers obtain a negative COVID-19 test before they arrive on Canadian soil — "something that countless other countries have required for months."
"We're letting tens of thousands of people into our country every week without the basic screening requirements," Ford said, adding that screening on arrival is "the bare minimum."
"Despite our repeated calls, we hear every week about dozens of flights coming in, unchecked, and bringing in COVID with them."
Ford said that if the federal government doesn't begin testing travellers on arrival, Ontario will — though he wouldn't say when he planned to start. "I've directed our officials to begin preparing infrastructure necessary for testing at our airports and I hope we won't have to go it alone, but we're prepared to do that if we must."
On Tuesday afternoon, Ford's Progressive Conservative Party sent an email to supporters asking them to sign an online petition calling on Ottawa to take stronger action at the border.
Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said that even if everyone was tested at the border, some cases could still get through.
"If you don't test people at the right time in their illness, in fact, the test can be negative," she said. "That's why we've maintained the 14-day quarantine with such a degree of rigour."
However, 81 per cent of the 6.5 million travellers who arrived in Canada between March 31 and Nov. 12 were exempt from quarantine, said the Canada Border Services Agency.
"The Canadian border remains closed to discretionary or optional travel, therefore the majority of individuals who have crossed the border are exempt travellers," spokeswoman Rebecca Purdy said in an email.
The majority of those exempt travellers were truckers, Blair added.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault told reporters he wants more information from the federal government about how it plans to enforce 14-day isolation rules for Canadians who return from holiday vacations outside the country.
Legault said he too hasn't ruled out the possibility of deploying provincial authorities to test travellers on arrival.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said Ottawa should expand a pilot project currently at Calgary's airport and a United States border crossing in the province.
Canadians can get on-site COVID-19 tests when they arrive. They must then self-isolate for 24 to 48 hours while they wait for results. If they test negative, they can leave quarantine but must monitor for symptoms and get a second swab within six to seven days of their arrival date.
Kenney said it's a voluntary program. He doesn't agree with the mandatory testing of travellers.
"Just like we don’t have mandatory vaccines in Canada, we’re not going to have mandatory testing. We’re not going to sort of grab people on the way off the airplane and stick a swab down their nose," he said.
Ford said he's worried in part because of a new variant of COVID-19 discovered in the U.K. Canada suspended flights from that country for 72 hours at midnight on Dec. 21.
Canada is currently reviewing additional measures, Blair said, adding that "enhanced screening has been put in place at all Canadian airports and at all points of entry" to identify travellers who may be arriving from the U.K. indirectly.
Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said the new variant has not yet been detected in Canada. She said, however, "Canada remains on a trajectory for an even stronger resurgence (of COVID-19) over the next two months and this is a perilous time."
Hajdu said that a second COVID-19 vaccine, from U.S. biotech firm Moderna, could be coming soon to Canada, if it is approved by federal regulators.
"Health Canada now has all the data required to make a decision; my understanding is that decision will be very soon," Hajdu said. "I can't speak for the regulators because obviously they are independent but they will have information for Canadians in the very near future."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 22, 2020.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press