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Monday,  April 15, 2024 8:09 AM 

“We are still struggling”: Calls intensify for Ottawa to lift travel testing requirements


“We are still struggling”: Calls intensify for Ottawa to lift travel testing requirements
From left: Lesley Keyter, owner/ founder, The Travel Lady Agency; Richard Bartrem, VP, communications, WestJet; Leanne Shaw, GM, Country Inn & Suites by Radisson, Calgary-Airport.
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 DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Fully vaccinated Canadians and inbound visitors should no longer be subject to out-of-pocket testing expenses and outdated measures when returning home.

That was the collective message shared by airline, travel agent, hotel and medical leaders at a press conference hosted by the Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable at Calgary International Airport on Monday (Feb. 28).

The event, one of several The Roundtable has held in recent months, specifically called on Ottawa to remove pre-departure testing entirely for fully vaccinated travellers on or before April 1, which is when federal officials are set to update Canada’s travel rules.

The government recently allowing the use of rapid antigen tests for pre-departure was a “step in the right direction,” said WestJet’s Richard Bartrem, vice-president of communications, who spoke yesterday.

READ MORE: Canada’s new travel rules kick in as Ottawa faces ongoing pressure to drop pre-arrival testing

However: the change “missed the opportunity to align with other international jurisdictions that have removed these requirements,” Bartrem said, calling Canada’s current restrictions “obsolete and out of step” with other countries, such as the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Denmark, that have removed all testing at their borders.

“Too many travel-related barriers remain in place,” Bartrem said. “Canadian international travellers, when they do travel once again, are going to look for the path of least resistance and right now and we are a path of resistance.”

Bartrem noted that WestJet’s flight volume remains at half of its 2019 level of roughly 700 trips per day. “This demonstrates that there’s still a lot more work to do,” he said.

Richard Bartrem, vice-president of communications at WestJet, spoke at the Roundtable's press conference on Monday (Feb. 28).

Taking questions from media, Bartrem said that talks with Transport Canada have been “positive,” saying that it’s his hope that pre-departure rapid testing and on-arrival random tests will end within 30 days.

And, if testing is lifted, he expects that business will take off. 

After the rules moved from PCR to antigen tests, WestJet saw an immediate spike in bookings – “within minutes,” Bartrem said.

“We fully anticipate that more people would travel if those restrictions were taken to the next level and antigen tests were removed,” he said.

"...there is no scientific reason..."

Canadian border changes, including the removal of the requirement that fully vaccinated travellers take a pre-departure molecular (PCR) test, a return to randomized on-arrival testing (and removing quarantine for individuals who are selected), as well as scrapping isolation measures for unvaccinated children who are travelling with vaccinated adults, took effect Monday (Feb. 28).

But Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician and associate professor at McMaster University, says the eased restrictions “don’t go far enough” and cause “unneeded anxiety” for travellers.

READ MORE: “Testing at the border does not make any sense”: Doctors call for removal of obsolete testing rules

“We really aren’t achieving much with what we’re throwing at the border, other than increasing the inconvenience of the traveller,” said Dr. Chagla, who has spoken on this subject before, yesterday.  

"Travel is no riskier than many other domestic activities, and there is no scientific reason to single it out," he said. "The federal government's outdated travel policies are unnecessarily stranding Canadians abroad, leading to travel delays, financial penalties, and potentially hazardous quarantine locations.”

While high-risk settings, such as sports arenas, gyms, high-capacity restaurants and nightclubs are allowed to open without the need for a COVID-19 test, travel and tourism continues to be the only industry subject to mandatory testing, despite being safer than many everyday domestic activities, Dr. Chagla explained.

Dr. Zain Chagla, infectious diseases physician and associate professor at McMaster University.

“Every variant of concern has made it into Canada and the likelihood of someone acquiring COVID in Canada is not from travel but it is from our day-to-day lives,” he said.

The cost and lower accuracy of rapid tests, which are cheaper and faster to process than PCR tests, are another area of concern.

“We know rapid tests in the era of Omicron are lower sensitivity…Random individuals are less likely to be positive unless they have symptoms that have been ongoing for some time,” Dr. Chagla said.

Pre-departure rapid tests must be taken anytime on the day of or before travel, which is similar to how the United States operates.

“The likelihood of picking up a positive case is like finding a needle in a haystack. But the costs are not negligible, right? People are still paying $20 to $50 for these tests, so for a family of four it’s an extra few hundred dollars into testing,” Dr. Chagla noted.

READ MORE: Feds to spend $1.2B on arrival testing

The doctor also questioned the government’s plan to continue on-arrival testing, which, according to a recent Globe and Mail report, is costing upwards of $1.23 billion dollars.

That money is better off spent in health care and vaccination outreach, Dr. Chagla suggested, rather than at the border to “test people that are very low risk to their society.”

There are also better ways to look for variants, he said, such as anonymous testing, monitoring sewage and investing in local testing and genome sequencing.

Canadians still have uncertainty 

Calgary-based Lesley Keyter, owner and founder of The Travel Lady Agency, also lent her voice to yesterday’s event.

Calling the past two years “very challenging,” Keyter called on Ottawa to extend support programs for travel and tourism “as there are many in the industry who will need this help when travel rebounds.”

She outlined the fact that travel agencies, unlike other businesses, only get paid once the customer travels “which can take quite some time.”

Calgary-based Lesley Keyter, owner and founder of The Travel Lady Agency.

Keyter also took aim at Canada’s pre-entry testing requirement for fully vaccinated travellers.

While some saw antigen tests as “a victory,” the change “has not really made a significant difference,” Keyter said.

“Canadians still have the uncertainty of travelling abroad knowing that there is a pre-entry requirement when they return,” she said. “They also know that we were previously told that PCR test is way better than antigen, which can show false positives.”

“The fear of not being able to return home is just too much for some Canadians.”

“We are still struggling”

Leanne Shaw, general manager of Country Inn & Suites by Radisson at Calgary airport, also shared insights on Canada’s hotel sector, citing ongoing revenue declines that show “we are still struggling.”

In 2021, international arrivals to Canada were just 13.2 per cent of international arrivals in 2019, she said.

“At Radisson, we continue to see our occupancy rate drop by more than 50 per of pre-pandemic levels,” Shaw said.

“There’s too many obstacles to travel to Canada. The change from a PCR to antigen test has had no impact on our bookings.”

What travellers need from the government, said Shaw, is “predictability” – “the confidence that when they travel for business, or with their families, they’ll be able to go home," she said.

“The federal government has acknowledged that we are in a different phase of pandemic management. Canada’s travel rules should also reflect this.”


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