Airport screening measures to be enhanced, Canada's chief medical doctor says

Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam says efforts to update the country's airport screening measures are "rapidly" underway, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated only some international travellers were undergoing the screening. Meanwhile, federal cabinet ministers said more answers are coming Monday following an emergency meeting on Sunday.

'It is impossible to be ... keeping tabs on every single traveller coming in,' said Tam

Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam said in a news conference Sunday that everyone in Canada needs to play a part in 'flattening' the curve of the pandemic. (Justin Tang/The Canadian press)

Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam says efforts to update the country's airport screening measures are "rapidly" underway, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated only some international travellers were undergoing the screening.

Trudeau delivered the remarks earlier Sunday in a televised interview with CTV News at a time when criticism is mounting over why the measures at borders and airports aren't being ramped up amid the global coronavirus pandemic.  

In response to concerns from travellers wondering why they did not go through a more robust screening process, Trudeau said that they "were not coming from a place of concern and therefore there were different protocols."

"We do not want public health officials to be using up their time and resources at airports doing something that isn't the most impactful thing they can be doing," he said, adding that the priority for officials is to be in their communities and in hospitals.

Travellers passing through Canadian airports say they are being asked whether they have recently visited Hubei province in China, Italy or Iran — but not where exactly they have travelled or whether they went to other countries hit by outbreaks.

Tam acknowledged this concern during a news conference Sunday, saying that officials are considering "additional screening questions" on the customs and immigration machines international passengers use when they enter the country.

Those new questions could probe for further details on travellers' activities — as due to the rampant spread of COVID-19, Tam said zeroing in on those regions may no longer matter.

This is our chance right here, right now.- Dr. Theresa Tam

"Now you're no longer just focusing on these three areas. You're actually focusing on all travellers from outside of Canada," she explained.

"I think that what you will see is that we're rapidly ramping up the communication on that front. ... We will be making sure that we have those messages out at all points of entry."

Tam also underscored that efforts to bolster Canada's collective response have reached a critical juncture. 

"This is our chance right here, right now," she said. "We need to act now and act together."

WATCH | Canada's public health officer: We all need to act now on COVID-19:

We all need to act now on COVID-19: Canada's public health officer

2 years ago
Duration 0:44
The Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, is asking Canadians to take all precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19. 0:44

Self-isolation remains voluntary 

Matt Jeneroux, the Conservative health critic, and Pierre Paul-Hus, the party's public safety critic, had criticized the government's handling of screening in airports and at other border crossings prior to Tam's remarks. 

"Reports that Canadians returning from international travel are not being properly screened at the airport or advised to self-isolate for 14 days are extremely concerning and must immediately be corrected. It's not enough for the government to simply announce a policy, they must ensure it is being enforced and that front line staff have the necessary resources and supports."

All travellers arriving in Canada from any destination are being asked to consider self-isolating for 14 days as a precaution — a measure Tam said remains voluntary out of necessity.

"It is impossible to be...keeping tabs on every single traveller that comes in. This is a social [phenomenon]. This is a societal response and everybody must take that responsibility," she said. 

"Public health is going to do what it can. It cannot be essentially maintaining that kind of … surveillance and daily monitoring."

However, in his interview earlier Sunday, Trudeau said that enforcing isolation — which is possible under Canada's Quarantine Act — hasn't been "taken off the table." 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said nothing is off the table Sunday when it comes to asking Canadians to undergo mandatory self-isolation or whether Canada will close its borders. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

What does screening currently look like?

Tam said that "messaging" advising recently returned travellers to self-isolate will also be updated at airports. 

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said Friday that, aside from flagging passengers travelling by air, "enhanced screening measures at all land, rail and marine points of entry" are now being implemented. 

Blair also said that resources are being directed toward people travelling from "high-risk regions" and those passengers receive additional information or further interaction with public health officials. 

The process includes immediately referring people exhibiting symptoms to relevant health authorities and telling passengers what to do if they later develop symptoms. 

Aside from the updated measures, the government also has plans to limit the number of Canadian airports that will accept inbound international flights — a list Transport Canada is currently developing and expects to release this week.

Emergency cabinet meeting Sunday

Late Sunday, the federal government convened an emergency cabinet meeting to address the country's response to the pandemic.

Following the meeting, Economic Development Minister Mélanie Joly said more answers are coming soon.

"Starting tomorrow, you will be hearing the decisions that we just took as a cabinet," she told reporters.

Ministers acknowledged that Canadians are scrambling for clarity amid uncertainty over potential border closures and fears for travellers abroad struggling to get home.

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne said Sunday there was "no way" the government would be able to repatriate all Canadians across the globe.

"We understand that people are facing anxiety. These are exceptional times and of course they call for exceptional measures," Joly said.

On Friday, cabinet updated its list of ministers who would replace the prime minister should he become unable to perform his duties.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland tops the list, followed by Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay and Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett.


Raisa is a writer and producer with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. You can find her on Twitter at @R_SPatel.