Citing threat from COVID-19 variants, Quebec calls on Ottawa to ban vacation travel

Another case of a highly contagious coronavirus variant has been detected in Quebec, and Premier François Legault says the federal government must shut down all non-essential travel, including trips to the Caribbean, to help halt the spread of COVID-19.

Premier François Legault wants the federal government to suspend travel to non-essential vacation destinations

Quebec Premier François Legault is asking Ottawa to crack down on non-essential international travel. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Flights continue to arrive at Quebec's airports from sunshine destinations every day and Premier François Legault wants it to stop.

He is calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to immediately ban all non-essential travel, adding "we can talk about what non-essential means."

"Going to Cancun ... and partying by the pool, I'm very sorry but that's not essential," Legault told a news conference. "I don't understand how someone could go to an all-inclusive [resort] in Punta Cana."

He also demanded that, in the interim, Ottawa go further in enforcing its quarantine policy and said the current system of checking up on people with automated calls simply isn't enough.

The main reason for demanding stiffer measures — Ottawa has already tightened quarantine rules, increased fines for scofflaws and acceded to Quebec's earlier demand that travellers produce a negative COVID-19 test before flying home — is the threat of more infectious coronavirus variants from Europe, South America and Africa.

Although Legault also suggested by implication that it may already be too late to prevent them from arriving entirely: the province has detected another case of the highly transmissible variant first identified in the United Kingdom. 

At a news conference of his own earlier, Trudeau urged Canadians travelling for pleasure to cancel their plans, and he raised the prospect of tighter restrictions.

At the same time, he said there are legal limits to what Ottawa can do given constitutional guarantees on the freedom of movement.

WATCH | Trudeau on if he would consider a travel ban: 

Trudeau is asked whether he would consider a ban on travel

1 year ago
Duration 1:39
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses CBC's Tom Parry's question on whether he would consider banning travel to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Legault retorted that exceptional circumstances require exceptional measures, and that federal officials succeeded in temporarily halting travel from the U.K. last month, and also suspended flights last spring. 

If the federal government isn't willing to crack down further on travellers, Legault said his government will. He declined to delve into specifics on what that might entail. Airports are a federal jurisdiction.

Cautious optimism as new cases recede

With Quebec reporting a decrease in new COVID-19 cases for the third straight day, Legault expressed guarded optimism the province may have crested the second coronavirus wave.

Referring specifically to the curfew his government enacted nine days ago, he said "we must still be careful ... but it appears the efforts you, Quebecers, are making are beginning to pay off." He thanked "all Quebecers who follow the rules."

Lest anyone be lulled into complacency, Legault also announced an effort to bolster testing capacity in four Montreal neighbourhoods where the community spread of COVID-19 remains a source of consternation.

He singled out areas in the north and eastern portions of the island, including Ahuntsic, Montréal-Nord and Rivière-des-Prairies. All are working-class areas, and all are home to large numbers of essential health and service sector workers. 

Provincial Public Health Director Dr. Horacio Arruda said increased testing should also help ferret out variant strains. He said the province plans to step up its surveillance effort for variants by randomly testing positive samples for those strains. 

The latest case of the strain first reported in the U.K. does not appear to be linked to a mini-outbreak last month, where an infected person returning from England passed the virus on to four family members, Arruda said.

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