Business

Ottawa facing pressure to nix pricey COVID test rule for fully vaccinated travellers

Despite easing many restrictions for vaccinated travellers, the federal government still requires proof of a negative COVID-19 molecular test before entering Canada. But it's not cheap. Depending on where you are travelling from, you may have to shell out between $150 and $300 for one.

PCR test can cost $300 — too high a price, say some would-be travellers

A man pushes a baggage cart wearing a face mask at Toronto Pearson International Airport in this file photo from June 23, 2020. Critics say the cost of Canada's molecular COVID-19 test requirement for travellers entering the country can be cost-prohibitive and risks further damaging the travel industry. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

Calls are mounting for Canada to nix its pricey pre-arrival COVID-19 test requirement for fully vaccinated travellers.

Despite easing some travel restrictions for vaccinated travellers, the federal government still requires they provide proof of a negative COVID-19 molecular test before entering Canada. 

The big complaint about the test is the price. Depending on where they're travelling from, people can shell out between $150 and $300 for a PCR test, the type of molecular test most widely available. 

For some, that added fee can make travelling too expensive.

"In many cases, the cost of PCR testing can be higher than the cost of the travel itself," said Jana Ray, chief operating officer of CanAge, a seniors' advocacy group. 

Ray spoke at a news conference on Thursday in Toronto, held by seniors' groups and members of the travel industry. They called on Ottawa to drop the test requirement for fully vaccinated travellers, and talked about how the test's cost impacts seniors, including snowbirds.

Jana Ray, chief operating officer of CanAge, a seniors' advocacy organization, spoke at a news conference in Toronto on Thursday calling for the federal government to drop its COVID-19 test requirement for fully vaccinated travellers. (CBC/Mark Bochsler)

"Travel is becoming cost-prohibitive for our members, many of whom are retirees on fixed or limited incomes," said Michael MacKenzie, executive director of the Canadian Snowbird Association.

"The time has come for the government to end these unnecessary barriers and return to affordable travel."

Conrad Bostick, 77, of Airdrie, Alta., agrees. He and wife, who are both fully vaccinated, traditionally travel to Mexico for three weeks each November. But this year, the retired couple — who live on a fixed income — scrapped their trip because of the added cost of the PCR test. 

"It's a huge disappointment," said Bostick from his home in Airdrie. "What's the point of everyone being vaccinated if you still have to get [a test]?"

Conrad Bostick of Airdrie, Alta., said he and his wife, Muriel, decided to cancel a planned trip to Mexico in November because of the added cost of the PCR tests. (submitted by Conrad Bostick)

Ottawa won't budge

Canada first introduced a COVID-19 test requirement for air travellers at the height of the pandemic in January 2021. It then extended the rule to land travellers the following month. 

The rule requires recreational travellers entering Canada show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of their departing flight or planned arrival at the land border. Travellers who recently recovered from COVID-19 are exempt if they provide proof of their positive COVID-19 test.

Months after introducing the testing rule, Canada started to loosen other travel restrictions, such as allowing fully vaccinated travellers entering the country to skip quarantine. 

But, so far, the federal government has refused to budge on dropping the negative test requirement.

At a news conference on Friday, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said the government is reviewing the test mandate but it will stay in place for now as a precautionary measure.

"Canada is still in many areas battling the fourth wave," she said. "While vaccines reduce the risk [and protect] people against infections, it's not 100 per cent and that protection could wane or be reduced over time."

Watch: Mayor of Windsor, Ont., says PCR tests are too pricey:

Mayor of Windsor, Ont., reacts to land border reopening

2 months ago
7:37
Mayor of Windsor, Ont., Drew Dilkens joins Power & Politics to discuss the U.S. land border reopening to fully vaccinated Canadians next month, what the requirements will be and whether the U.S. will recognize a mixed-dose vaccine schedule. 7:37

Canada's refusal to nix the test first sparked complaints earlier this month when the United States announced it would soon reopen its land border to fully vaccinated recreational travellers — without requiring a negative test.

The U.S. does mandate that fully vaccinated air travellers entering the country show proof of a negative COVID-19 test, but travellers can opt for a rapid antigen test — which costs as little as $20 and provides quick results.

In an interview on CBC's Power and Politics earlier this month, Drew Dilkens, the mayor of Windsor, Ont., near the Canada-U.S. border, suggested that the antigen test would be a much more affordable option for travellers entering Canada.

"If I want to visit my brother who lives in Michigan, have a lunch and a dinner and come home at the end of the day, my wife, my two kids and myself, we are not going to spend $800 to have a PCR test to return," he said. 

"We're all fully vaccinated and there has to be a better way to deal with that."

Many countries with test requirements allow travellers to take an antigen test. But Tam said they're not as accurate as PCR tests, which are highly sensitive.

"The PCR test is fundamentally more effective at detecting the virus in asymptomatic ... people."

An easier test?

Another complaint about the molecular test is that, unlike the antigen test, it can take up to 24 hours — or longer — for travellers to get their results.

That poses a problem for travellers taking short trips, so Canada now allows people crossing into the U.S. to take their molecular test in Canada and then use it upon their return, as long as it's less than 72 hours old.

But that doesn't help travellers with longer trips who may find themselves scrambling to get their test results in time before returning home. 

To solve that problem, Air Canada, in partnership with Switch Health, a Canadian-based health-care company, is now offering a do-it-yourself COVID-19 test it says meets Canada's test requirements.

Air Canada, in partnership with Switch Health, a Canadian-based health-care company, is offering a do-it-yourself COVID-19 test it says meets Canada’s test requirements. (Air Canada/Switch Health)

Travellers order the test online before travelling and take it to their destination. Before returning home, they take the test themselves under the guidance of a health professional via video conference. 

Switch Health says the test, called a portable LAMP test, produces immediate results. 

However, the test doesn't solve the cost problem: the test kits are priced at $149 each for Air Canada Aeroplan members and $199 for non-members. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris covers business and consumer news. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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