Travellers from South Africa report prolonged stays in quarantine hotels — at taxpayers' expense
Some travellers report waiting about 36 hours for release after receiving a negative COVID-19 test result
Several Canadians who recently travelled home from South Africa told CBC News they were forced to stay in government-funded quarantine hotels for an extra 23 to 36 hours after receiving negative COVID-19 test results.
"It's a complete waste of tax money, and I think it's an embarrassing way to treat Canadians," said Simon Dragland.
Dragland, a TV producer who was in Cape Town for work, flew home to Toronto on Dec. 5 and was sent to a quarantine hotel. He said he got his negative test result the next day, but then didn't hear from the federal government until 36 hours later, when a government official finally approved his release.
"I left the hotel pretty angry at the entire process," he said. "The real frustration here is the complete lack of organization or communication."
After the new omicron variant was identified in South Africa late last month, Ottawa recently mandated that Canadian air passengers from that country and nine others in Africa face stricter travel rules, including a COVID-19 test upon arrival. They also must spend part of a required 14-day quarantine in a government-designated hotel while awaiting the test results.
Foreign nationals who have travelled through any of the 10 countries flagged in the last 14 days are barred from entering Canada altogether.
CBC News interviewed four fully vaccinated Canadians who travelled home from South Africa this month. Each said that after receiving their negative test results, they had to wait in their quarantine hotel for another day or two before they were officially released.
The travellers said they were eventually released via a phone call from a Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) official, who in three out of the four cases, checked that they had a suitable post-hotel quarantine plan.
The travellers all complained that the wait to be released was frustrating and a drain on taxpayer dollars, because Ottawa is footing the bill for the quarantine hotel stays.
"I stayed two nights to get my test results. I stayed another two nights after I got my negative test results, doubling the cost unnecessarily," said Alyna Wyatt, an economist who was in Johannesburg for work and flew home to Toronto on Dec. 2.
After getting her negative test results, Wyatt said she spent close to 36 extra hours in her quarantine hotel room before getting permission to leave.
"You start feeling helpless," she said about the wait. "You feel like you're in this black hole."
Wyatt said her release came shortly after she pleaded her case to two nurses stationed at the hotel, who had dropped by to take her temperature.
"I asked the nurses … 'At what point do I throw myself on the floor, wailing and screaming and throwing a temper tantrum for someone to pay attention to me?'" she said. "Their response was they're working through the backlog."
Ottawa working to speed up process
The federal government has repeatedly said if and when Canadian air passengers from the 10 targeted African countries test negative upon arrival, they can leave their hotel and finish their 14-day quarantine at home.
However, the process is actually more complicated, as the four travellers' experiences have shown.
According to a government information document distributed to those entering a hotel quarantine, travellers who test negative must still wait in their hotel room until a PHAC official approves their release. The document also states the wait for approval could take up to 48 hours, and those who leave without authorization risk fines of up to $5,000.
Before releasing travellers, PHAC officials need to ensure they have a suitable post-hotel place to quarantine, said PHAC spokesperson Tammy Jarbeau. She added that the agency is trying to speed up the approval process.
"PHAC is working to boost its capacity to release travellers as close to their test result as possible," said Jarbeau in an email.
She confirmed the government is paying for the hotel quarantine costs, including transportation and three meals daily for each guest. Jarbeau was not able to provide an estimate for the cost of the program in time for publication of this story.
On Saturday, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told CBC Radio's The House that Canada has a choice between "no [hotel quarantine] system and an imperfect system."
AG report criticizes previous hotel quarantine program
Frustration with the new hotel quarantine rules comes as Canada's auditor general released a report criticizing the federal government's previous hotel quarantine requirement, which was in place between February 22 and July 4 for all recreational travellers entering Canada by air.
On Thursday, Auditor General Karen Hogan tabled a report that concluded PHAC struggled to keep track of whether travellers ordered to stay in quarantine hotels actually did so. It found PHAC only had records to verify hotel stays for about one-quarter of air travellers between February and June 2021.
The AG report also follows a government advisory panel report issued in May that found the hotel quarantine program was flawed and unnecessary, ultimately recommending that it be scrapped.
Picking on some countries?
Dr. Prabhat Jha, an epidemiologist from the University of Toronto, said he feels it's unfair to make hotel quarantine travellers endure a long wait before release.
He also said it's unfair to force only Canadians travelling from 10 African countries to quarantine in a hotel, as the omicron variant has now spread across the globe.
"It's picking on some countries," said Jha, noting that people entering Canada from places such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Denmark — where omicron is rapidly spreading — are exempt from the hotel quarantine.
A more practical solution would be to allow all travellers to quarantine at a place of their choosing and ramp up COVID-19 testing, Jha said.
"If we worry about imported cases and reducing them, then really expanding testing — including home-testing — would be a key pillar," he said.
Most travellers to Canada must take a pre-departure test and Ottawa is currently rolling out mandatory testing upon arrival for all international travellers. Those entering from the U.S. will be exempt from the arrival test, even though at least 19 states have now detected cases of the omicron variant.
During a news conference on Dec. 3, the federal government said travellers from the U.S. could eventually face stricter rules, depending on public health advice.
It also said the government imposed harsher restrictions on the 10 African countries due to a range of factors, such as their COVID-19 positivity rate, vaccination rate and their ability to detect and respond to the omicron variant.
"You have to act fast and then re-evaluate what's going on," said Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam.
But while Canada reassesses its current travel restrictions, the travellers who endured the long hotel waits say they're speaking out to draw attention to the problem.
"Other people are [still] suffering in there," said Dragland.