As Ottawa Mulls New Travel Restrictions, Experts Question their Usefulness
Anna Kroupina, Open Jaw

While Canadian officials said they are working with the United States to close what they describe as a travel “loophole”, some experts are questioning the usefulness of travel restrictions in limiting COVID spread. 

While the U.S.-Canada land border has been closed to non-essential travel since MAR, the U.S. had not placed any restriction on international flights. This “loophole” has allowed Canadians to make discretionary trips between the two countries.

In the meantime, an international panel of researchers found implementing travel restrictions early in an epidemic did reduce transmission, but that “the effectiveness of these measures was short-lived,” adding the caveat that the overall body of evidence remains thin, CBC reports

There’s also evidence that flights returning from holiday destinations are not the ones driving viral spread. While incoming travel is a contributing issue, it’s nowhere near the most pressing one which is community transmission, say experts.

“We have [current] cases that are imported from travellers but it is not an important proportion of new cases,” Dr. Mylène Drouin, the director of public health for the Montreal region, told CBC.

Further, data from the Public Health Agency of Canada shows less than 2 per cent of all COVID-19 cases reported in Canada are from those who travelled outside of the country. One major study in 2020 found international travel is likely responsible for between one and 10 per cent of active cases in any given country, CBC reports.

What worries Quebec, which has been advocating for tighter travel restrictions, are the new, more contagious COVID-19 variants that have emerged in South Africa, the U.K and Brazil. The province hopes to slow down their proliferation and buy time for the health care system to absorb new patients.

“The main thing is: we have to stop spreading this virus around. The way you do that is by stopping people from moving around,” said Dr. Kelley Lee, a Canada Research Chair at Simon Fraser University’s Faculty of Health Services.

While there is some movement on further restricting air travel between the U.S. and Canada, President Joe Biden signed an executive order last week directing the U.S. to collaborate with the Canadian and Mexican governments to develop health and safety measures to reopen their land borders, WKBW reported

However, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made clear that if anything, he is looking to increase border restrictions, not relax them. 

As Open Jaw reported, Ottawa is considering cracking down on travellers with mandatory hotel quarantines — at travellers’ own expense — or banning travel altogether. Trudeau has consistently repeated his government’s message that Canadians not travel outside the country, adding that new measures to prevent travel could be imposed without notice. 

U.S. Congressman Brian Higgins, who serves as co-chair of the Congressional Northern Border Caucus, said he’s not worried that Trudeau’s comments will stop Biden’s executive order to create a plan for relaxing border restrictions.

The merits of travel bans are being debated widely, but they’re a real possibility for Canadians, as Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau told CBC the federal government won’t rule out invoking the federal Emergencies Act to limit travel. The Emergencies Act would give cabinet the power to regulate or prohibit travel “to, from or within any specified area, where necessary for the protection of the health or safety of individuals.”

Legal experts say a ban on non-essential travel in Canada would violate the mobility rights guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — which states, “Every citizen of Canada has the right to enter, remain in and leave Canada. But, like other rights, it can be limited if the limitation is justified, reasonable and proportionate, says Johanne Poirier, a McGill University law professor. Given the pandemic, the courts might offer the government more flexibility, she said.

Airlines, Travel Sector Urge Collaboration

The introduction of firmer travel measures in Canada — already among the strictest in the world, by Trudeau’s own admission — would have dire consequences for the already-beleaguered travel industry.

In a joint letter, the National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC) and union leaders representing Air Canada Pilots Association (ACPA), Air Line Pilots Association Canada (ALPA) and Unifor are urging the federal government to consult with them before it enacts any new measures to reduce travel.

“Airlines and airline workers are the front-line implementors of these policy changes. We need to work together to ensure an effective outcome for all involved,” said Mike McNaney, President & CEO, NACC.

“We want to work with government as a partner, as measures are being discussed, to assure effective implementation and avoid unintended consequences. The recently introduced pre-departure testing regime placed a great deal of strain on our industry as we sought to implement the new requirements in the span of one week, working with officials at a feverish pace to develop the necessary regulations and guidance material.”

Tim Perry, ALPA Canada President, added that the sector seeks to “work with the government on a path forward with continued safe operation, based on a robust science- and data-based testing regime for quarantine measures and any additional restrictions.” 

Anna Kroupina

Anna Kroupina Journalist

Anna is OJ’s newest member and she joins the team as a writer/reporter. She co-writes the daily news and covers events. Although she’s new to the industry, pursuing a career path in travel/tourism has been a goal since her first family road trip to the Florida Keys sparked a desire to discover the world and this exhilarating, fast-paced industry.

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