OTTAWA — Ongoing tensions between the provinces and the federal government over the management of the COVID-19 pandemic pivoted back Tuesday to the question of whether and how border controls can be tightened to slow the spread of the virus.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned all Canadians to cancel any non-essential trips they have planned in the coming weeks, whether abroad or even within Canada, as new travel restrictions are on the way. What shape they might take remains up for discussion.
“The bad choices of a few will never be allowed to put everyone else in danger,” he said at a news conference outside his Rideau Cottage home in Ottawa.
The premiers of Ontario and Quebec, however, suggested some new measures could be implemented swiftly, including mandatory quarantines in hotels for returning travellers, further flight bans from countries where new variants of the novel coronavirus are circulating and mandatory testing upon arrival in Canada.
“We aren’t the first country to require this and we won’t be the last,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said during a visit to Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, where a pilot project testing some incoming travellers is underway.
“I can’t figure out for the life of me why we aren’t testing every single person that comes through this airport … and the land crossings as well. We have to lock down.”
On Tuesday, the global case count topped 100 million since the novel coronavirus was first detected just over a year ago. The first cases in Canada were found a year ago this week.
So far, over 19,000 people have died and more than 753,000 have contracted the virus.
The number of cases believed to be linked specifically to travel is less than two per cent, a fact officials generally peg on a ban that’s been in place for nearly a year on non-essential travel into Canada, and the associated quarantine measures.
As of Jan. 7, people coming into Canada must also take a pre-arrival COVID-19 test.
But dozens of flights have arrived since that date with passengers on board who later tested positive for COVID-19.
There are currently pilot projects at the Calgary and Toronto airports to test some incoming travellers for COVID-19. As of last week in Calgary, 1.15 per cent of tests were positive.
Data released on the Toronto program Tuesday showed 2.26 per cent of tests so far came back positive.
While non-essential travel into Canada is restricted, it is much more challenging to simply block Canadians or permanent residents from travelling abroad or returning.
There’s also the reality that the cargo holds on commercial flights are sometimes filled with essential goods and any new travel restrictions need to be done so as not to affect trade, Trudeau said.
Even as he called for Trudeau to tighten border controls, Quebec Premier Francois Legault said Tuesday that case numbers in his province continue to decline and it is possible some restrictions will be eased as of Feb. 8.
Case numbers also continued to come down in much of Manitoba, but officials there also want tougher border controls, and have decided to put some in place themselves — starting Friday, all out-of-province arrivals will have to self-isolate.
Premier Brian Pallister said the move was needed given the spread of COVID-19 variants and the slowing of vaccine supplies.
No doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will arrive in Canada this week, and there will be a reduction in deliveries next week too as the company retools a production facility in Europe.
The slowdown has seen provinces warn of running out vaccines, and delaying second doses or even getting first ones into the arms of some priority populations, an issue they’ve blamed entirely on the federal government.
But the federal government has continued to insist the delays won’t compromise the end goal of having all willing Canadians vaccinated by September and shortages now will be made up by a surge in deliveries in the coming weeks.
Federal ministers also appeared Tuesday to brush off concerns the European Commission may look to control exports of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Like Canada, Europe is seeing a reduction of dozes from Pfizer, and anger on the continent about that decrease — billions of euros have funded the production of vaccines — has led to musings of setting up a “vaccine export transparency mechanism” to track how many doses are being made there and where they are being shipped.
International Trade Minister Mary Ng said she does not expect export controls will be introduced.
“We will continue to work with the EU just as we have done throughout this pandemic to make sure that our critical health and medical supply chains remain open and they remain resilient,” she said during a news conference in Ottawa that was delayed over an hour when the government’s teleconference system broke down.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2021.
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press