By Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press
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 Canadians to cancel any non-essential trips they have planned abroad or even within Canada in the coming weeks, 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 for Ontario and Quebec, however, suggested new measures could be implemented swiftly, including mandatory quarantine in hotels for returning travellers, 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 Canadians 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.
The Canada Border Services Agency said Tuesday that since that requirement went into effect, there’s been a 33 per cent drop in international travellers arriving by air when compared to a similar time period last year.
Still, dozens of flights have arrived since that date with passengers on board who later tested positive for COVID-19.
In Alberta, where a pilot project to test some returning travellers at both the land border and at the Calgary airport has been underway since November, 1.15 per cent of tests have come back positive as of last week.
Data released Tuesday on the Toronto program, which began this month, showed 2.26 per cent of tests so far came back positive.
Wesley Lesosky, who heads a union division representing about 15,000 flight attendants at nine airlines, told the House of Commons transport committee Tuesday there should be a “serious look” at using rapid tests at airports before anyone gets on a plane.
Currently, a person departing for Canada must go and get their own test, known as a PCR, within 72 hours of their departure and provide proof of a negative result.
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.
Trudeau also said Tuesday commercial flights often carry cargo, so there are concerns restrictions could affect trade.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault likened the debate to this time last year, when pressure began for Trudeau to close the border due to the arrival of the pandemic in Canada.
The closures didn’t end up coming until mid-March — after thousands of spring break travellers from Quebec had already left, and returned, kicking off the first wave of the pandemic in that province.
He said he didn’t understand why it is taking so long for Trudeau to act this time around.
“Each day there are travellers arriving, each day that goes by there’s an added risk,” Legault said in French.
“So there’s an urgency to act.”
The National Airlines Council, which represents the largest airlines in Canada, said Tuesday despite concerns about winter travel, international air service is down 90 per cent, and domestic service has been cut by 80 per cent.
Case numbers 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 of 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.
An independent effort by researchers in Saskatchewan to track vaccine delivery and administration in Canada estimates about 77 per cent of the 1.1 million doses received so far have been administered.
During an emergency debate Tuesday night, Procurement Minister Anita Anand told the House of Commons that Pfizer has assured her it will ramp up its deliveries once its plant is upgraded and will still meet its contractual obligation to supply Canada with four million doses by the end of March. Another two million doses are scheduled from Moderna by that time.
With those two vaccines alone, Anand said the country remains on track to meet the government’s goal of vaccinations for every willing Canadian by the end of September. If Health Canada authorizes any of the other five vaccine candidates for which the government has contracts, she said that schedule could be accelerated.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole criticized Trudeau for suggesting earlier in the day that Canada is “in good shape” when it comes to the vaccine supply.
“He thinks we’re in good shape when Canadians will only receive eight per cent of the vaccines his government promised Canadians just last month,” O’Toole said.
“If this is what the prime minister considers good shape … what does he consider terrible shape? Three per cent?”
Green MP Elizabeth May urged opposition parties to “turn the temperature down,” arguing that it’s “a remarkable achievement of modern science that vaccines exist for something that we didn’t even know about a year ago.”
Still, she asked Anand if there’s a link between Pfizer’s call for more favourable tax treatment from the Canadian government at the same time as it is delaying the supply of its vaccine.
Anand said the only things she has discussed with Pfizer is its contractual obligations and the delivery schedule for the vaccine.
“I have not discussed any other matter with the vaccine suppliers at all.”
— with files from Morgan Lowrie, Mia Rabson, Steve Lambert