As It Happens·Q&A

Travellers will be 'stranded' if they don't show negative COVID-19 test, warns transport minister

Transport Minister Marc Garneau put stricter measures in place for travellers returning to Canada as new variants of COVID-19 emerge from the U.K. and South Africa.

'We have responsibilities to keep Canadians as safe as possible,' says Marc Garneau

Minister of Transport Marc Garneau says Canadians can't come home without proof of a negative COVID-19 test. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Starting Wednesday, travellers coming into Canada will need to have a negative test for COVID-19 in order to get on a plane. 

Minister of Transport Marc Garneau says airlines will have to check the passengers and their tests in an effort to prevent any further spread of the virus and its variants within Canada.

The rules came into effect despite opposition from airlines that said they didn't have enough time to prepare. 

Garneau spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the latest measures. Here is part of their conversation.

Minister Garneau, airlines were predicting mayhem if you didn't delay this rule by a month. Why did you decide to go ahead anyway?

We have been telling people since March, don't travel abroad unless you absolutely need to. And if you do, of course, you're going to have to go through a 14-day quarantine. 

In recent weeks, we've been hearing about a new variant of the U.K. COVID virus variant, as well as one out of South Africa. And let's face it, even though we've got vaccines on the horizon, the situation is getting worse here in Canada.

We felt it was important to act quickly and, in this particular case, to put in place a requirement for people who are abroad ... to provide a proof of negative results from a PCR test within three days of returning to Canada.

Canada's large airlines concerned about COVID-19 travel rules


2 months ago
Canada's largest airlines want Ottawa to delay pre-departure COVID-19 testing requirements over fears that some Canadians may be stranded abroad. 3:34

OK, but will you just talk about that variant? We knew about that in December. If that's your motivation, why did you allow for the weeks of travel, especially over Christmas, where many people, including government officials, were on the move? Why didn't you act sooner?

As soon as we became aware of the variant, we put in place a ban on flights from the U.K. [This was] on the 20th of December, for three days ... then we extended it by two weeks because we felt it was important to prevent flights coming from the U.K. 

In the interim, however, a lot of things happened. There are now at least three dozen countries where the U.K. variant has implanted itself, and there is now the South African one as well. It has reached four of the provinces in Canada. I think, at last count, 11 people tested positive for the U.K. variant. 

So the situation has evolved very quickly in the last three weeks. We felt that the most important thing for us to do now is to prevent anybody coming from any country back into Canada, unless they can demonstrate that they are negative prior to boarding their [return] flight.

It's incumbent on the passengers to come up with that test and get it no later than 72 hours before they board. But you said that there can be exceptions. How is that decided? 

The decision is made by the agent at the gate. 

We've agreed that 72 hours could be extended to 96 hours [in some countries] because it would take a little bit longer to get the results and to get the testing done. We've made a temporary exception for 24 countries in the Caribbean and some in South America.

We also discovered that there are two countries where there are very limited capabilities to test. One is Haiti and the other one is St. Pierre and Michelon, the islands just off of Newfoundland. And we have established, in their case, that we will dispense with the pre-departure test for the meantime and, instead, they will be subjected to testing on arrival and possibly being put into Government of Canada quarantine facilities.

But if people have a negative test, they still have to go into 14 days of quarantine. Why so?

As we know, you can contract the COVID-19 virus, not be symptomatic and not come up with a positive result for some time.

It does not guarantee that you are absolutely not going to become infectious within the next few days. So it's extremely important to follow [the test] with the 14-day quarantine at this point.

And what's the responsibility of the airlines in all of this? There are penalties if people haven't got those tests. What do they have to do?

They're still doing the temperature measurements. They're still asking the questions. But they also have to require proof, documented proof, whether it's on paper or electronically, that shows the name of the person, when they were tested and what the result was. If they do not have that, [the agents] have to refuse them from boarding the plane to come back to Canada.

If the airline agent determines that the person can't get on board, they and their family, maybe even children, are those passengers not stranded?

Yes, they are stranded. They're going to have to comply with the requirement in order for them to be allowed to board.

I was informed about a number of people who were refused boarding on a flight coming back from Mexico today because they had gotten tested, but not the right kinds of tests. We are very serious about making sure that people comply with this requirement because we want to protect Canadians at a time when COVID is on the rise in this country. People are very concerned, particularly about the variants, which are more easily transmitted.

Hailey Knott, nurse operations manager, waits at a COVID-19 testing station located at the international arrivals area at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Wednesday. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

I wonder if some of the urgency of this policy is because the public is angry about the numbers of government officials and politicians who were travelling over the holidays. Is this also an effort to appear to be doing something, given that people are scandalized by what those people in government could do when others were staying in place?

I think if you look at what we've done in the last 10 months, you will probably realize that we have reacted to the need to ensure the safety of Canadians from a health perspective. And the decision that we took was purely motivated by the fact that there are now variants which are more easily transmitted and that are now in at least three dozen countries, and that we're very concerned about making sure that we minimize the risk of infecting Canadians.

That is what is the primary reason for us to bring in this additional layer of safety over and above quarantine. And it's the right thing to do, and we will keep it in place as long as it is required.

The Globe and Mail reported that a senior public servant at Public Health Agency of Canada accepted an all expenses paid holiday to Jamaica, courtesy of Air Canada, in November. Do you think that people might be justified in losing confidence in the government?

It's important that all Canadians do their best to try to make sure that we're all working together to minimize the possibility of further transmission. People like the one that you just mentioned and people who are public office holders are expected to lead by example. That's very important. 

We, as a government, realize that we have responsibilities to keep Canadians as safe as possible. The vast majority of Canadians are making enormous sacrifices at the moment to do their best, to do their part, to try to bring this pandemic to an end. And so I would urge all people, and particularly public office holders, to set an example with respect to how we're going to deal with this pandemic.

We all have a role to play.

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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