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Saturday,  May 18, 2024 6:00 PM 

Federal advisory panel recommends ending hotel quarantine, Ottawa declines

Federal advisory panel recommends ending hotel quarantine, Ottawa declines
Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair.
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

The good news? A committee set up by the Government of Canada has advised the federal government to discontinue its mandatory hotel quarantine program for international air arrivals.

The bad news? Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair are saying thanks…but no thanks.

In a statement issued Thursday night (May 27), the two politicians welcomed the report on border testing and quarantine measures from the “COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel.”

However, they reiterated how “Canada has some of the strictest travel and border measures in the world” – words often spoken by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – and have decided to leave the current travel restrictions as they are. For now.

A committee set up by the Government of Canada has advised the federal government to discontinue its mandatory hotel quarantine program.

“Current data shows that these requirements are working,” Hajdu and Blair said, noting how there has been a 96 per cent reduction in air traffic and 90 per cent reduction in non-commercial land traffic into Canada compared to pre-pandemic volumes.

The advisory panel, which was established in November 2020 to provide evidence-informed advice on policy, lists several problems with mandatory hotel quarantine stays – a protocol that was introduced in February.

The issues include: travellers choosing to pay a fine of up to $3,000 without presenting a quarantine alternative and administrative burdens associated with managing the program.

READ MORE: Hotel quarantine secrets revealed - A travel agent’s tell-all

The report says the required 72-hour stay “is inconsistent with the incubation period of SARS-CoV-2.”

The committee also notes inconsistencies between land and air-border measures given that some travellers can land at a U.S. airport and enter Canada by car to avoid the hotel stay.

Ministers Hajdu and Blair noted how the majority of individuals crossing at land ports of entry are essential service providers, “such as truck drivers and nurses.”  

The Government of Canada, they wrote, will “continue to monitor and review all available data and scientific evidence to inform future border and travel measures, and will be prudent in its approach, keeping the health and safety of Canadians top of mind.”

3 key recommendations

The COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel has issued three reports since January 2021. Its latest analysis provides recommendations for land and air border measures.

READ MORE: Ontario court dismisses hotel quarantine injunction request

The report, which can be viewed here, contains advice for the elimination of quarantine, pre-departure testing for fully vaccinated travellers and the effective use of rapid antigen testing.

The recommendations include:

That border measures evolve to reflect the global situation regarding COVID-19 variants of concern (VoCs) and vaccinations. This includes screening positive cases among international travellers and having procedures in place for submitting tests.

That border measures be simple, easy to understand and equitable. 

This point, notably, calls for the discontinuation of hotel quarantining for all air travellers. Travellers subject to quarantine, however, must provide a suitable quarantine plan for approval and adhere to this plan, the report reads. 

If a traveller does not have a suitable quarantine plan, they should be required to adhere to an alternative one (such as designated quarantine facilities).

“As much as possible, land and air border measures should be consistent,” the panel suggests.

The report also notes that there is “no substantial incremental value” in additional testing for people travelling to other Canadian destinations once they have arrived at their first port of entry in Canada.

Border measures must be simple, easy to understand and equitable, the committee said.

The committee suggests that changes to border measures be implemented in stages.

The federal government should continue to use the ArriveCAN app for traveller information reporting, the report says.

Officials should also review and approve quarantine plans for all arriving travellers at both land and air borders, including screening for symptoms for all travellers.

READ MORE: About 26,000 travellers entering Canada were exempt from hotel quarantine, says PHAC

The study, notably, says a system for validating “proof of vaccination" for arriving travellers be implemented "as soon as possible."

Introducing a vaccine passport system is something federal officials have committed to. However, Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra hasn't been able to provide a specific timeline for the roll out. 

Non-vaxxed? Partially vaxxed? Fully vaxxed?

The committee identifies five groups of travellers:

  1. non-exempt who are not vaccinated
  2. partially vaccinated (received the first dose of a 2-dose series, are within the recommended maximum interval period between doses and 14 days have passed since the first dose)
  3. fully vaccinated (14 days have passed since the final dose)
  4. non-exempt with proof of previous infection
  5. exempt as defined by the Government of Canada, such as essential workers

For unvaccinated non-exempt travellers, the committee suggests the current 72-hour, pre-departure PCR testing protocols, and testing on arrival – minus hotel quarantine.

For this same group, it says travellers with a negative PCR test result taken at day seven of quarantine should be permitted to leave quarantine.

For partially vaccinated travellers, the committee recommends home quarantine until a negative test result is received on arrival.

This recommendation also applies to travellers with proof of previous infection within the last 14 to 180 days.

Travellers that can show proof of vaccination, however, should be allowed to skip a pre-departure test, quarantine requirement or day seven test, the committee says.

A COVID-19 testing station at YYZ. (Toronto Pearson)

For “surveillance purposes,” a PCR test on arrival at the border testing station should still occur, the panel adds.

READ MORE: Still no timeline for vaccine certificates, easing travel rules, says Transport Minister

The epidemiology and virology experts who compiled the report consulted with more than 60 health, public policy, border, transportation experts, and industry stakeholders to determine their recommendations.

This committee also states that Ottawa not impose country-specific testing or quarantine measures at this time “except under unique circumstances.”

7 days or 14 days?

Studies indicate that a seven-day quarantine with a test at the end of the quarantine period may be similarly effective to a 14-day quarantine without testing, the report says.

A McMaster HealthLabs study found that 94 per cent of all cases were detected by the day seven test.

“Depending on the level of compliance, a 7-day quarantine with testing may be more effective than a 14-day quarantine without testing,” the report says.

“We strongly support these recommendations”

The National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC), which represents Air Canada, Air Transat, Jazz Aviation and WestJet, issued a statement Thursday night, applauding the panel's findings.

“We strongly support these recommendations, and they are in-keeping with policy measures that are already being implemented by other countries as they release their plans for the safe re-start of aviation and travel,” said Mike McNaney, President and CEO of the NACC.

McNaney said the federal government “must move immediately” to engage with industry and utilize the panel’s report as the basis to “implement a clear and strong re-start strategy for Canada.”

Ministers Hajdu and Blair said they will consider the committee’s recommendations to determine just how testing and quarantine strategies should evolve to address vaccination status.

The Government of Canada recently extended all quarantine and travel measures until at least June 21, 2021. 

Click here to read the entire “COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel" report. 

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