It may soon be checkout time for the policy requiring air travellers to Canada to check in to a government-approved hotel for three days.
In a report issued Thursday, the scientific panel advising the federal government on COVID-19 testing and screening recommended the end of the mandatory hotel program, citing its cost, inequitable approach and the fact the three days doesn’t match what’s known about the incubation period for the virus.
The advice to end the hotel program — though a quarantine would still be required — was one of several recommendations that amount to the first overarching guidance on how and when current restrictions on travel into Canada ought to ease up, including whether or not those who are vaccinated must quarantine at all.
Right now, people flying into Canada must quarantine for 14 days if they’re not exempt from those restrictions, like some essential workers. The first three days are supposed to be spent in a government-approved hotel while they wait for the results of the mandatory arrival test, and after that another test is required towards the end of the full quarantine period.
Changing the rules shouldn’t happen quickly, given the ongoing wave of the virus, said the panel.
“Managing a border is inherently complex but the measures in place must be easy to understand, equitable, feasible and consider both benefits and harms,” the report said.
“The proposed approach is evidence-informed and reflects the global situation on SARS-CoV-2, (variants of concern) and vaccine effectiveness.”
The panel’s recommendations come as industry groups, in particular the tourism and airline sectors, have been agitating for the federal government to make clear how travel to Canada will resume, especially as the pace of vaccinations ramps up globally.
The panel set out guidelines for five distinct groups of travellers: those not exempt from the current travel restrictions who are not vaccinated, or partially vaccinated, or fully vaccinated, and those who have proof they’ve had the virus. The fifth is those allowed to travel, including essential workers.
Those who are fully vaccinated, the report said, shouldn’t have to automatically quarantine or take a COVID-19 test after 10 days, though they should be tested for COVID-19 on arrival and go into quarantine if found to be infected.
But Ottawa needs to come up with a system to confirm proof of vaccination, the panel said.
“A system to validate proof of vaccination for arriving travellers should be made available as soon as possible,” the report said.
In a statement, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the government would take the recommendations under advisement, and that current measures appear to be working as the number of cases found in travellers is very low.
“The government of Canada will continue to monitor and review all available data and scientific evidence to inform future border and travel measures, and will be prudent in its approach, keeping the health and safety of Canadians top of mind,” she said.
The hotel requirement was part of a suite of measures implemented this winter, partly in response to political pressure on the Liberals after many Canadians were found to be flouting restrictions on non-essential travel.
As citizens or permanent residents, they couldn’t be barred from returning, but there were demands for some kind of deterrent to be put in place that would limit those trips, and in turn make sure all travellers were abiding by the 14-day quarantine period when they returned.
From that came the three-day hotel stay for air travellers, along with the requirement for COVID-19 tests upon arrival and towards the end of the quarantine.
Except, concluded the panel, it’s not clear it worked as intended.
“While a mandatory three-day initial quarantine in government-authorized accommodations obviously improves compliance during those three days, the level of compliance after is uncertain,” the panel said.
The report also found compliance has not been even across the board when it came to the 10-day test.
It cited internal data from the Public Health Agency of Canada that between Feb. 22 and March 6, air travellers submitted 31,616 arrival samples for testing, but only 21,100 samples for day-10 quarantine had been received by March 20.
The hotel program had been criticized from the start as being expensive, unfair — it didn’t apply to those crossing at the land border — and too easy to work around, as people could just walk away with a fine.
The panel cited those reasons in suggesting the use of the hotel stay be discontinued, although it said mandatory quarantine and surveillance of those travellers must be maintained.
It also noted that the incubation period for the virus is longer than three days, and most cases in travellers were discovered about a week into the quarantine.
It said the quarantine can be done at home and potentially for less time — the report cited modelling suggesting a seven-day quarantine with a test at the end might be similarly effective to a 14-day quarantine without a test.
And that day-seven test may allow people to be sprung from quarantine sooner, the panel said.
“Requiring a test at day seven of quarantine to facilitate exit may prove to be an incentive and thus increase compliance, resulting in more robust surveillance,” the panel said.
There remains much unknown about the virus and the possible implications of additional new variants, and a cautious and balanced response remains crucial, the report concluded.
“Border measures must be simple, easy to understand, equitable and consider both benefits and harms. Canadians are more likely to adhere to border restrictions if they are clear, understandable, equitable and if they avoid creating unreasonable delays and imposing unreasonable costs.”
The report comes amid an ongoing political fight over whether border restrictions are sufficient to control the spread of COVID-19.
That fight has been waged with particular vigour by Premier Doug Ford, who has sought to blame the third wave on border measures he says are too lax, a charge he brought up yet again in a call between the premiers and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday night.
Trudeau pointed to the fraction of cases actually linked to travel, and the fact almost everyone arriving has either been deemed essential or is a Canadian citizen.