Fully-vaccinated Canadians will be able to travel outside of the country without having to self-isolate for 14 days or having to stay in a quarantine hotel upon arrival, starting as early as July.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu announced the first step in a “phased” easing of the federal government’s pandemic border measures on Wednesday, more than a year after Canada restricted non-essential travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The move follows calls to end mandatory hotel quarantines and permit fully vaccinated Canadians to move around more freely.
However, seeing these changes become a reality will depend on whether there are any concerning fluctuations in new case counts and vaccination rates, as well as pending consultations with provinces and territories.
“These metrics are very important factors as we move towards implementing the changes on the border that we hope to have in place in early July,” said Hajdu. “If we can keep our communities safe and free of COVID, then we will not have to return to measures that are so difficult for everyone.”
According to Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s seven-day average of new daily COVID-19 cases has dropped below 1,800 for the first time since the fall of 2020. And, as Procurement Minister Anita Anand announced Wednesday, Canada is expected to receive at least 55 million COVID-19 vaccines by the end of July.
Hajdu said this first step in gradually easing travel restrictions comes after more than a year of sacrifices from Canadians who stayed home and cancelled important travel plans to abide by public health guidelines.
WHO IS ELIGIBLE?
Travellers who have completed their vaccination regime at least 14 days prior to their arrival in Canada will be who the government consider fully vaccinated.
Eligible travellers will be those who received a COVID-19 vaccine that has been authorized for use in this country, so: Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, or the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, even though none of those single-shot J&J doses have been administered in this country to-date.
These travellers will still have to show a negative pre-departure PCR test, and will have to take a COVID-19 test upon arriving in Canada. Once in Canada, returning travellers will still need self-isolate until their most recent test result comes back negative.
The easing of restrictions will apply to any Canadian citizens or permanent residents who have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine. It remains to be clarified how these changes will be applied to fully-vaccinated families travelling with unvaccinated children.
The federal government is currently discussing with the Canada Border Services Agency about rolling out this easing of restrictions.
VACCINE PASSPORT TALKS ONGOING
While the requirement for being able to travel without the full two-week quarantine is contingent on vaccination status, the federal government says it’s still working with the provinces about what the proof of vaccination documentation will look like.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said that it is possible that these so-called vaccine passports may not be ready by the time the federal government is ready to allow fully-vaccinated Canadians to reenter without full quarantines, but that border agents will have temporary guidance on what proof of vaccination will be accepted.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signalled that changes were coming to Canada’s border measures for those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, saying that a full vaccine regime is required to ensure more fulsome protection.
The plans come just prior to his first international trip since the outset of the pandemic, but the move will not impact his travel plans. The prime minister has not yet indicated whether and when he’ll receive his second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine after receiving his first AstraZeneca shot in April. His delegation will be isolating after returning from the multi-stop trip to Europe.
NO TIMELINE FOR TOURISTS
The federal government says that it’ll be some time still before tourists from other countries, or Canadians without a full vaccine regime, will be able to travel as freely.
With more people becoming fully vaccinated both in Canada and abroad, the Canadian government is under pressure to start to talk about how and when restrictions could change.
Talks are ongoing with the U.S. about how specific border measures could be eased, given the increasing rates of vaccinations and decreasing virus spread in both countries.
Tam told reporters Wednesday that the target of 75 per cent of eligible Canadians being fully vaccinated remains the metric for a more fulsome reopening of international travel.
“Having the full course of vaccine is extremely important,” she said.
Hajdu said she is aware of the calls from the tourism sector to ease up on travel restrictions. She said many other businesses and sectors have suffered from the economic lockdowns as a result of surging cases and the federal government doesn’t want to put the current positive indicators in jeopardy by opening too much, too soon.
“It is better now to be slow and cautious… to be careful in our approach so we can have a sustained success,” said the health minister.
EASING AFTER 15 MONTHS
Non-essential international travel restrictions and mandatory 14-day isolation periods for returning travellers have been in place since restrictions were imposed when COVID-19 cases first started to surge in Canada in March 2020. The rules limiting who can come into Canada without having to self-isolate have been renewed each month since, with the latest orders set to expire on June 21.
The mandatory hotel quarantine element of Canada’s COVID-19 border measures was instituted in February, following an influx of holiday travellers, as a means to discourage non-essential international trips. The announcement received criticism when the government said that travellers would have to foot the $2,000 bill for their up to 72-hour stay, while they wait for the results of their PCR test.
CALLS TO END HOTEL STAYS FOR ALL
In late May, just after the restrictions were rolled over for another month, Canada’s COVID-19 Testing and Screening Expert Advisory Panel called for an end of the hotel quarantine program for all travellers.
Comprised of infectious disease specialists and public health experts, the panel raised a series of issues with mandatory hotel quarantines, including that a number of travellers chose to pay the fine of up to $3,000 to skip the hotel stay, without presenting a legitimate quarantine alternative.
At the time, the panel also laid out an extensive framework for how to adapt quarantine and testing rules for those not vaccinated, partially vaccinated, and fully vaccinated arriving into the country.
For fully-vaccinated travellers the panel recommended that they provide “acceptable” proof of vaccination, as defined by the government, and the removal of the pre-departure test requirement. They still recommended a PCR test upon arrival only and no quarantine would be needed unless that on-arrival test was positive.
Just days ago, the federal government increased the penalty for those who choose to skip the hotel stay. Now, tickets issued by police for violations of the Quarantine Act will carry a maximum fine of $5,000.
Reacting to the news, Conservative MP and health critic Michelle Rempel Garner said the announcement lacked clarity. She posted a video online saying the government’s decision to maintain hotel quarantines for unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated travellers was “a huge disappointment.”
“There is no way that the hotel quarantine program should be continued,” she said.