'Now is not the time': Federal government warns against travel abroad as Omicron spreads
Ottawa is advising Canadians to avoid non-essential travel outside the country
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos is asking Canadians with plans to travel abroad to cancel their trips as the highly transmissible Omicron variant spreads worldwide.
To prevent travel-related infections at a time of mounting case counts, the federal government has changed its official guidance to advise Canadians to avoid all non-essential travel outside the country for the time being.
"To those who were planning to travel, I say very clearly — now is not the time to travel. The rapid spread of the Omicron variant on a global scale makes us fear the worst," Duclos said.
With tens of thousands of Canadians planning trips abroad over the coming weeks, the new advisory could wreak havoc on vacation plans and void some travel insurance policies.
Acknowledging that introducing a new advisory so close to Christmas is a "drastic" move, Duclos said he's acting now because he's "afraid" and "concerned" for people who travel abroad because the Omicron situation is changing quickly. The rate of spread is "huge," he said, and Canadians may find themselves stranded if countries impose lockdown measures or curb flights in and out.
"The situation abroad is already dire in many places and it's going to get worse very quickly, so we're afraid for what could happen to them if they leave Canada," Duclos said.
WATCH | Trudeau urges Canadians to avoid non-essential international travel:
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In addition to the new travel warning, Duclos said the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) will ramp up the mandatory arrival testing program at the country's airports. Duclos said last week the feds could process up to 17,000 arrival tests a day — he's now promising to do more and to "test as many travellers as possible."
Last week, the federal government announced it would make incoming travellers from non-U.S. foreign destinations get a COVID-19 test when they arrive in Canada. This new test is in addition to the pre-departure molecular test that all travellers must undergo before leaving for Canada.
Asked if the arrival testing program will be applied to people coming from the U.S., Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said the government is "constantly reassessing" the situation.
"When we feel we need to change our policies, we'll announce it as quickly as possible. For now, we're monitoring it," Alghabra said.
Asked if the government would consider reinstating the hotel quarantine program — an earlier initiative that forced returning international air passengers into hotels while while they waited for their post-arrival test results — Duclos said "all options are on the table." For now, he said, the government is just advising against travel but other measures could soon follow.
With the existing pre-departure testing requirement and a vaccine mandate in place, PHAC data suggest very few returning travellers have actually tested positive for COVID-19.
Of the 232,835 arrival tests completed by fully vaccinated air passengers between Sept. 10 and Nov. 27, only 0.14 per cent produced a positive result.
While still low, the positivity rate for the 267,550 unvaccinated and partially vaccinated travellers who were tested was 0.63 per cent — nearly five times higher than the rate for vaccinated travellers.
Asked why the federal government is targeting travellers while allowing provinces and territories to proceed with mass gatherings like indoor sporting events, Duclos said today's measures are all about "prudence."
"Whether we like it or not, we must adapt to this reality. We must stand together and do everything in our power to protect our health care system and our front-line workers," he said.
WestJet, one of the country's largest airlines, strongly condemned the new travel advisory in a media statement Wednesday, saying the government's decision is "not based on science and data."
"Air travel is the most tested and protected consumer activity in Canada. Every person travelling internationally is tested on average twice throughout their travel journey," said Harry Taylor, the airline's president and CEO.
"As the only fully-vaccinated air travel sector in the world, WestJet is calling on the government to publicly share the travel related COVID-19 data that has been used to re-impose the advisory and advice targeted towards fully-vaccinated Canadians and the travel and tourism industry."
Taylor said "fully-vaccinated Canadians should not be singled out" by the government for choosing to take part in a "safe activity." He also said the travel advisory, coming just 10 days before Christmas, will cause "unnecessary disruption" and "chaos" across the travel industry.
Last Christmas season — when the government had a similar travel advisory in place and vaccines were scarce — a number of federal and provincial politicians faced public criticism for travelling abroad.
WATCH | MPs discuss the rise of the Omicron variant on CBC's Power & Politics:
A spokesperson for Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said Wednesday the party's caucus members will be allowed to travel abroad this year because the government has only issued an advisory and not an outright "ban" on foreign travel.
"This is an advisory that helps vaccinated Canadians make informed choices about safe travel. This applies to MPs and all Canadians. As such, members of the Conservative caucus can continue to travel internationally," Josie Sabatino said.
Sabatino said that, before the last advisory was lifted in October, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and some of his cabinet ministers traveled internationally on ten different occasions.
In an interview, Liberal Government House Leader Mark Holland said his party's MPs have been told not to travel abroad while the advisory is in place. He called the Conservative stance on the advisory "completely irresponsible."
Rachel Blaney, the NDP whip, said the party's MPs have been advised to heed the government's warnings and avoid all non-essential international travel.
"Canadians are tired and understandably disappointed that we're not yet out of the pandemic but it's more important than ever to follow public health advice to keep each other safe," Blaney said. "Canadians expect elected officials to lead by example by following the rules."
Speaking briefly to reporters earlier, Trudeau said Canadians need to be cautious when making plans for the holidays.
"Canadians have been attentive [to COVID-19] for months and months. We've seen that people know how to do the right thing. They're going to have to be vigilant and make careful decisions about Christmas," Trudeau said in French.
Tune in to CBC's The National tonight for a special full edition on COVID-19 and the rapid spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant in Canada and around the world. What do you need to know to protect yourself and the people around you? Should you change your holiday plans? What's safe and what's not? Adrienne Arsenault and Andrew Chang will be joined by doctors and health experts throughout the program to answer your questions. Send your questions to email@example.com, and be sure to tune in to The National tonight at 9 p.m. on CBC News Network, 10 p.m. on CBC Television and CBC Gem.
With files from the CBC's Travis Dhanraj