Edmonton

Travellers put to the test with requirement to prove they're COVID-free before coming home

Lesley Paull doesn’t mince words when summing up the impact of a new requirement for travellers to prove they don’t have COVID-19 before coming home to Canada. "It's a mess!"

Travel agents, airlines racing to contact clients on vacation

Canadians returning home after travelling abroad, like these people at Montreal's Trudeau Airport in December, must now be tested for COVID-19 prior to boarding their flights. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Lesley Paull doesn't mince words when describing the impact of a new requirement for travellers to prove they don't have COVID-19 before coming home to Canada.

"It's a mess," the founder and general manager of Paull Travel told Edmonton AM Thursday, barely eight hours after the new federal requirements kicked in.

Anyone older than five entering Canada will be required to show proof of a negative test taken within 72 hours before being allowed to board a flight.

Paull said the short notice of the measure, announced by the federal government on Dec. 31, combined with difficulties in finding labs to get tests done over the holiday period is creating stress for travellers, airlines and agents alike.

"It's mass pandamonium," she said. "[On] Jan. 1, 2 and 3, airlines and all of us travel agents were trying to find customers in their destination who had shut phones off because they were trying to have a holiday.

"To give such short notice to be able to get home with this test … it's just impractical. So you can say, 'So sad, too bad.' But you know, at least if we could have had two weeks to make sure everybody got home, I think that would have been a little more realistic."

Paull said the immediate job for airlines and travel agents is to ensure that travellers who are still on vacation know how to find a lab to get the required molecular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test done. 

"We have people attempting to come home in the next three days — not today thankfully — that are still waiting to see if they get results in time, and if the airline will accept the test and, in fact, if it's the right test," she said. 

"It's a horrible situation and they are so stressed, as you can imagine."

'Up to the client to figure it out'

WestJet and Air Canada have been reaching out to passengers, she said, but "finding labs isn't their expertise," she said.  

"Really, it's up to the client to figure it out," Paull said. "For most who didn't use an agent, it would be a matter of phoning around to find a lab that could do it fast enough, and do the correct test, with very limited time."

Those steps have been proving tricky in Hawaii and are significantly more problematic in destinations such as Mexico or the Caribbean, though some all-inclusive resorts are now bringing in nurses to perform the tests on site, Paull said. 

Transport Canada has said the testing window for people returning from the Caribbean or South America before Jan 14 has been extended to 96 hours of boarding. Travellers coming from Haiti are exempt from the requirement until Jan 21.

The tests cost about $150 US per person, she said.

Federal and provincial governments have been urging Canadians to avoid non-essential travel as the pandemic continues. Numerous politicians and public officials — including six UCP MLAs in Alberta — have been the focus of public anger over their holiday jaunts.

Travellers must still quarantine for 14 days, with the exception of Albertans participating in the pilot COVID-19 program at Calgary International Airport or at the Coutts border crossing. Those individuals must take a COVID-19 test at the border and a followup test one week later.

While the current situation is chaotic and stressful, Paull is equally concerned about how the measure will impact the travel industry in the longer run.

"Those that were 50/50 about going, I am sure will not go."

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