Why is Ottawa moving so slowly on travel restrictions? Because ‘things can change quickly,’ insiders say


OTTAWA — The Liberal government under Justin Trudeau is taking no chances at the border.

This time.

Critics lambasted it in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic for failing to take the “precautionary” approach on everything from border controls to aerosol transmission and beyond. For not being risk-averse enough.

So now, despite the accelerating vaccination rate, and the clamour by business leaders, airlines, the tourism and hospitality sector, seven premiers and territorial leaders and many Canadians for a clear, staged plan on how international restrictions on travel and commerce will be lifted, the Trudeau government is being extremely careful.

On Monday, it eased — ever so slightly — quarantine restrictions on fully vaccinated Canadian and permanent resident travellers as of July 5. It removed the obligatory three-day hotel quarantine for air travellers, plus 10 days quarantine at-home on condition they have a negative molecular COVID-19 test before and after coming in.

It is step one.

But Ottawa did not reveal what the next steps of reopening the border might look like, or how many stages there will be.

It did not say when it would tell Canadians the next stage would be announced.

It did not say what actual thresholds or metrics it will be set as targets or triggers for those next steps beyond a vague reference to 75-per-cent full vaccination coverage in Canada, and to eyeballing case counts, hospitalizations, and ICU capacity.

In unveiling phase one, the government did not even go as far as its own independent scientific advisory panel urged on phasing in eased restrictions for travellers based on vaccination status.

That panel reported to the government on May 2 and called for smarter use of testing and more rigorous supervision of at-home quarantine to track any cases entering Canada. It was only publicly released weeks later, on May 27.

The report recommended an end to the hotel quarantine scheme, calling it expensive, inequitable and unreflective of the virus’s incubation period. It urged the government to apply the same day-seven testing and at-home quarantine supervision measures at the air and land borders. And it said fully vaccinated travellers shouldn’t need a pre-departure test, only proof of vaccination and an on-arrival negative test. It set out other measures for partially vaccinated, unvaccinated, previously infected and exempt travellers.

So what did the government do?

Though it got rid of hotel stays for fully vaccinated citizens, it kept the pre-departure test and on-arrival tests.

It kept the hotel quarantine for other travellers. (Certain essential workers like truckers and health workers are exempt from the quarantine provisions.)

It announced no measures to strengthen adherence to or supervision of at-home quarantines or tighter testing timelines.

Finally, it retained a ban on non-essential travel until at least July 21 — a ban the expert panel had assumed would continue for a while.

The only change is that it will now allow entry of permanent residents whose certificates of residency expired or couldn’t be issued during the past year’s travel ban. That ban has meant only citizens and permanent residents with a legal “right of entry” — along with exempt travellers like essential workers or international students — are admitted at the border.

For some 23,000 permanent residents, it’s been a nightmare. Many have been unable to come in due to expired or unissued documents, and the immigration department may now require new medical or other documents from them as it tries to address the backlog. Meanwhile, it urges nobody to book flights anytime soon.

In all this, there is a glaring incoherence.

The government that claims it is only guided by science has cherry-picked — well, pretty much ignored — advice from its own scientific expert advisory panel. It says that advice went through the Public Heath Agency of Canada and Dr. Theresa Tam, the chief public health officer.

And Tam is expressing a lot more caution now than she did in late April, when she set out the only metric heard to date: foreseeing an easing of public health restrictions once 75 per cent of the population had been vaccinated with one dose and 20 per cent had been fully vaccinated.

Canada has already met that first target for full vaccination coverage in the last two days.

Now the game-changer is COVID-19’s more transmissible Delta variant, first identified in India in December 2020.

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So far, the science shows that being fully vaccinated provides very good protection against severe illness, even against the Delta variant.

However, Trudeau, Tam, Health Minister Patty Hajdu and a handful of other ministers have decided that now a “prudent, cautious” approach is required.

Tam admitted last week that PHAC’s modelling released April 23 never accounted for the Delta variant — even though there were already more than 30 documented cases in this country by April 22.

So there’s a new goalpost.

Hajdu said on Monday the government wants to see 75 per cent of Canadians fully vaccinated with two doses.

And then what? We don’t know. The government won’t say.

One government official speaking to the Star on background said even a 75 per cent fully vaccinated population may “not necessarily” trigger a full reopening.

Some doctors don’t like to get hung up on those numbers.

“The concept of herd immunity is proving to be, first of all, elusive, and secondly the threshold is likely to be higher than we thought it was going to be some months ago, because the Delta variant is more transmissible,” said Dr. Irfan Dhalla, co-chair of the COVID-19 testing and screening advisory panel.

The bottom line is the once-bitten, twice-shy Liberal government is reluctant to liberalize border restrictions any quicker. Why?

“The frank answer is because things can change,” said a second senior government official.

And while airlines and business leaders are frustrated, the government believes it has a majority of public opinion onside.

Internal government polling obtained by the Star showed 75 per cent of Canadians supported a quarantine change for fully vaccinated Canadians, with 64 per cent supporting an end to mandatory hotel quarantine for them. But Canadians were split on cutting the quarantine time from 14 to seven days for travellers in general.

For the government, that means moving slowly in a crucial two months before a possible fall election is the way to go.

“We’ve certainly learned from the beginning of the pandemic that things can change quickly, that you don’t want to make decisions too quickly that then you have to go back on or reverse because the epidemiological situation has changed or the international context has changed,” said an official.

“But the good news is because the vaccine rollout is going so well and the numbers are skyrocketing. We’ll be getting closer to normal pretty quickly.”





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