As Canada courts a steady rise in COVID-19 cases, federal health experts on Friday warned on the risks of travelling abroad amid the rapidly spreading Omicron variant.
“Things are happening very quickly outside of Canada. So if you think of travelling, that should be a serious alarm bell,” federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told reporters before the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) presented new modelling projecting the trajectory of COVID-19 in Canada.
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He also warned that Canadians returning home from abroad “should expect delays and hassles” at airports and urged vigilance to those wishing to go out of the country.
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International travel ‘risky and unstable’
“You need to plan ahead, be prepared for airport delays, have a quarantine plan,” Duclos said. “You should also be prepared for officials to follow up with you to make sure your COVID testing is complete.”
In response to the detection of Omicron, Canada was quick to implement travel curbs to contain the spread of the variant. This included banning visitors who have recently travelled through 10 African countries.
So far, Canada has recorded 87 COVID-19 cases of the Omicron variant — nearly all of them asymptomatic or mild. Most of the initial cases recorded were linked to recent international travellers or their close contacts.
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“The Omicron variant of concern is a cruel reminder that a global epidemiological situation can change quickly. We all need to be prepared for that as well,” Duclos said.
He also mentioned that in the near future, the government, as well as Canadians, may “need to change gears, adjust our plans or change our behaviour to meet the needs of the moment.”
For Canadians still wishing to travel beyond borders, he warned that “the situation abroad is both risky and unstable.”
However, travelling within Canada might not be as inconvenient.
According to Canada’s chief medical officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, travelling within the country “at this point in time means that you are likely to have a much better experience than if you are heading into the international destinations.”
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“If you haven’t booked any of these (international) trips, staying closer to home, I think, is definitely the better choice,” Tam told reporters during a press conference Friday.
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For those that have already booked trips, “things can change rapidly in the international context,” the country’s top doctor warned.
At present, the federal government requires all passengers entering Canada, except those from the United States, to be tested upon arrival and isolate until they get their results.
However, Duclos acknowledged Friday that Canadian airports do not yet have the capacity to fully test all non-U.S. international arrivals. While he did not say when that would happen, he mentioned that current capacity has increased but remains limited.
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As of Nov. 30, airports could administer 11,000 tests per day and that number has gone up to 17,000 a day, he said. Full capacity would be 23,000 daily tests.
Some provinces have increased the use of rapid tests in the face of rising COVID-19 case numbers. Ontario’s science advisory table said Thursday that rapid tests could be helpful tools in workplaces and schools, while Quebec announced test kits for kids.
Duclos also said Friday that provinces and territories have requested 35 million rapid tests and they will be delivered this month.
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Meanwhile, as the government cautions against international travel, global travel agencies have warned of the impacts that could have on business.
‘Closing borders is not the answer’
In a joint statement released Friday, the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), Association of South African Travel Agencies (ASATA), Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA), Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association (CHTA), European Travel Agents’ and Tour Operators’ Associations (ECTAA) and World Travel Agents Associations Alliance (WTAAA) collectively agreed that “closing borders is not the answer.”
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“The addition of new border measures has significant economic impacts on travel and tourism businesses that may not add additional community protection,” the statement said.
“It is critical that government policy is guided by science, not political pressure or the desire to be seen as ‘doing something’ since these measures have significant, sometimes irreversible impact on businesses and jobs.”
Many have also called the advisory confusing.
Head of a travel insurance company, Marty Firestone, told The Canadian Press Saturday that the prospect of flying abroad is getting “incredibly confusing.”
Passengers are uncertain about whether they will be tested at airports upon return or forced to quarantine — in addition to the gamut of measures in other countries.
Many clients are now rerouting trips or cancelling altogether out of exasperation, he said.
John McKenna, CEO of the Air Transport Association of Canada, also called for more clarity on the advisory from the federal government as thousands of Canadians start to call off holiday trips.
This is “complete confusion,” McKenna said. “Even we have calls with the department of transport, and they don’t have the answers.”
The federal government has not yet formally advised Canadians to avoid foreign travel. But, Duclos maintained Friday, “that could come.”
— with files from The Canadian Press and Reuters
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