Air Canada cancels flights to China until April as government braces for domestic coronavirus outbreak
Government urges Canadians to watch travel advisories as infections spread in South Korea, Iran and Italy
Air Canada is extending its suspension of flights between Canada and mainland China until April as the number of coronavirus cases — and the number of countries affected — continues to grow.
The country's largest domestic and international airline announced Tuesday that service to Beijing and Shanghai will be cancelled until April 10. The company initially grounded flights for the month of February after the federal government issued an advisory warning against non-essential travel to China.
"Air Canada will continue to monitor this evolving situation closely in consultation with the Public Health Agency of Canada, Transport Canada and Global Affairs and will adjust its schedule as appropriate," says a statement from the company.
Air Canada normally operates direct flights to Beijing and Shanghai from Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
The carrier also is extending the suspension of its daily Toronto-Hong Kong flights until April 30 due to reduced demand, and says it will accommodate customers already booked on those flights on its non-stop Vancouver-Hong Kong flights.
Asked in the House of Commons Tuesday if the government has done enough to screen potentially infected individuals entering the country, Health Minister Patty Hajdu insisted Canada has imposed "strict" measures. But she noted the coronavirus has now spread to at least 35 countries — including some that may not have the capacity to properly diagnose it.
"Those measures are less effective and it's time to turn our attention and our resources to making sure we're prepared on the domestic stage," she said.
Hajdu said there are not many cases in Canada now, but that could change at any time.
Hajdu said the messaging at airports will broaden to advise all international travellers on what they should do if they experience symptoms. But she said passenger screening and containment efforts are now less relevant than domestic efforts to delay and mitigate an outbreak.
Hajdu said Canadians in Iran and other affected countries will receive consular support, but suggested that evacuating people is now unlikely.
"We should be clear that repatriation efforts are limited at this point. It's difficult at this point to commit to an ongoing repatriation process. You have to remember that it takes a lot of resources and the resources have to be focused in terms of our domestic response," she said. "It's important for Canadians to realize this may cause disruptions in their lives."
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said Monday Canadian officials are preparing to respond to a possible pandemic in the event there is a community outbreak domestically. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the epidemic a global health emergency, but has not yet called it a pandemic.
Earlier today, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne urged Canadians planning international trips to keep a close eye on government travel advisories as the coronavirus outbreak spreads.
Nations around the world have been imposing strict travel restrictions in an attempt to contain the virus's spread.
On his way into a cabinet meeting this morning in Ottawa, Champagne called the outbreak a "dynamic" situation and said Canadians with travel plans should take precautions.
"Make sure you check before you go. That's the best advice I can give," he said.
"We've seen new places where the coronavirus has expanded — in South Korea, we saw in Italy today not only the north of Italy but Sicily and Tuscany. We've seen what's happening in Iran."
Global Affairs Canada (GAC) has heightened its travel advisory for South Korea, where nearly 1,000 cases have been reported. The department is now warning travellers to exercise a "high degree of caution" in travelling to the country due to the spread of the novel coronavirus.
More than 320 cases have been reported in Italy. More than 80,000 cases have been reported globally.
GAC's advisory for travel to Italy was updated Tuesday, warning travellers to "practise special precautions."
"COVID-19 can spread from person to person, and in Italy cases have been confirmed in multiple regions in the north of the country. Sustained community spread of the virus is being reported. This means it is unknown how or where some people became infected, and the spread is ongoing," the advisory reads.
The advisory says good medical care is widely available in Italy, but services could be limited in rural areas and doctors and nurses may not be able to communicate in English or French.
Medical treatment for life-threatening emergencies and emergency room treatment is free of charge in Italy, but hospitals charge up-front for any convalescence or follow-up care, the advisory reads.
Risk remains low in Canada
Tam issued a statement today saying that the risk posed by the coronavirus in Canada remains low.
She also confirmed that the 195 people who were under quarantine at the Canadian Forces Base in Trenton after an evacuation flight from China have been released.
The group arrived two weeks ago on the second government-chartered flight from Wuhan, China, and have shown no symptoms throughout the quarantine period.
"As a result, they pose no risk to others and can return to their usual activities," Tam said in the statement.
"I would like to thank the repatriated Canadians and their families for their patience, cooperation and contribution to public health. They have been through a stressful experience and I urge everyone to treat them with respect and compassion."