Canadian military bans international travel in response to COVID-19

The Canadian military will halt overseas travel and deployments until further notice as part of a sweeping response to the global pandemic of COVID-19.

Routine operations and patrols within Canada will continue

The Canadian military ordered a ban on international travel and a halt to overseas deployments on Friday as part of a wide-ranging response to the global COVID-19 outbreak. (Clement Allard/The Canadian Press)

The Canadian military has banned all foreign travel and ordered non-essential personnel to stay home — part of its sweeping response to the global outbreak of COVID-19.

A formal order — known as a CANFORGEN — was issued Friday after a preliminary warning order was issued to units across the country the day before.

In an interview, the country's top military commander also said a handful of troops who recently returned from an overseas operation have voluntarily gone into self-isolation at the military airbase in Bagotville, Que., but they are not considered "presumptive cases."

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance confirmed that only one member of the military — a naval reservist — is in hospital in Spain after being formally diagnosed with the illness.

'Miltary operations will continue'

He said those returning from deployment and leave outside of Canada will be ordered to self-isolate.

"We're trying, at this point in time, to pause all things, but necessary military operations will continue," Vance said.

The new travel ban will mean that the few thousand troops now serving on deployments, exercises and exchange positions will not be allowed to leave the countries where they are operating.

Reservists, who serve part-time, are being encouraged to abstain from personal travel outside of Canada. Bases will be closed to visitors, including foreign delegations.

Military training schools will restrict new entrants and those already on course will be confined to base.

"While at home, or on leave, in Canada, I'm asking members to adopt an approach that protects themselves and their family from the virus," Vance said. "I expect our command and control headquarters to continue operations, albeit at reduced levels, and some units will be able to stand down to essential administration and command functions only."

'Ships will still sail and planes will still fly'

Routine operations and patrols within Canada will continue, as normal.

"Ships will still sail and planes will still fly," said Lt.-Col. Dave Devenney, a spokesman for the defence chief. "Our job is to stay healthy, preserve the force and be prepared to fight."

Dave Perry, a defence analyst at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, said the orders are meant not only to halt the spread of the virus but to give the military flexibility to respond if the civilian health care system or vital infrastructure becomes overwhelmed.

"The military is pre-positioning if they are called out to help the government in any significant way," he said.

Troops could be deployed with transport and communications to help frontline health workers, such as the people doing virus screening.

"People at the frontline of the pandemic could require a host of supports," Perry said.

An order for federal government workers to stay home also could put a strain on some parts of the country's telecommunications grid.

"The military has independent communications that can work around that securely," Perry added.

The order follows on a series of measures the military has taken in response to the unfolding pandemic crisis. Travel to China was banned shortly after the novel coronavirus became a major issue in Asia.

A week ago, Vance said the military had started "pre-pandemic planning" by issuing orders that gave base commanders the authority to cancel large public gatherings, restrict all non-essential travel and enforce higher standards of personal hygiene.

At that time, Vance said federal officials, under a worst-case scenario, were prepared for an absentee rate among government workers of 25 per cent and that the military is looking at a similar number.

He added that the best defence is to not get sick at all.

The biggest issue the Department of National Defence has faced thus far has been the civilian travel restrictions, which have hampered the movement of personnel. It also has prevented the full resumption of the military training mission in Iraq, a senior commander told a parliamentary committee this week.

There is concern for the forces operating in war zones like Iraq, where the health care system lies in ruins. As of Thursday, Iraq reported 74 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and eight fatalities.

Approximately one-quarter of the country's cases are known to be in the northern Kurdistan region, where Canadian special forces troops have been conducting an advise-and-assist mission to help root out the remaining extremist holdouts after the fall of the Islamic State.

The country's second-largest city, Mosul, was largely destroyed by the fighting.

The Canadian measures differ from those being imposed by the Pentagon, which as of today is barring all troops, family members and defence civilian employees from traveling to afflicted countries, including Italy, South Korea, and China, for the next 60 days.



Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.