The Current

Bill Blair says Canada's borders have 'layers of protection.' An expert warns those layers have 'many holes'

Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair weighs in on whether the ban on flights from India and Pakistan will curb the spread of COVID-19, or if it's already too late. Plus, we hear about the efficacy of travel restrictions from Kelley Lee, Canada research chair in global health governance at Simon Fraser University.

Flights from India and Pakistan banned for 30 days, over surge in COVID-19 cases

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair says measures to stop COVID-19 getting into Canada via international travel are among 'the strongest border measures in the world.' (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

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Minister of Public Safety Bill Blair says Canada's border restrictions aimed at fighting COVID-19 are "composed of several layers of protection."

"We stopped all non-essential international travel coming into Canada, both by land and air, and we're one of the few countries in the world that has taken that very strong measure," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

The federal government has advised all Canadians against non-essential travel since the pandemic began last spring, though there has been criticism that enforcement is not strong enough

Blair said the federal government had also implemented testing for international air travellers both before they board a plane to Canada, and when they arrive. He also pointed to quarantine measures for arrivals, including spending three days of their 14-day quarantine in a hotel — though some Canadians are exploiting loopholes to avoid that measure.

"I think from the outset we've demonstrated that we're quite prepared to add additional layers of protection when required, and we have amongst the strongest border measures in the world," Blair said. 

Transport Minister on why the ban on flights from India and Pakistan wasn't done sooner

1 year ago
Duration 2:17
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra says Ottawa started seeing "alarming data" on positive tests being linked back to flights from India in the "last day or so."

On Thursday the federal government banned flights from India and Pakistan for 30 days, in response to a surge of COVID-19 cases. India recorded more than 330,000 new cases on Friday. That same day saw a record 2,263 deaths, as hospitals struggle with an overwhelming number of patients and an oxygen shortage.

The ban is also related to the emergence of a new variant, B1617. It was first detected in India, has two mutations and has been associated with a poorer antibody response, by one immunologist.

On Wednesday, health officials in B.C. confirmed 39 cases of the variant had been detected as of April 4.

Blair said that less than two per cent of COVID-19 cases in Canada are related to international travel, but to stop those variants getting into the community, Canadians must observe the public health guidelines implemented to stop the spread.

"The variants have travelled around the world into every country," he said.

"That's why the public health measures that the provinces and … regional public health agencies have put in place are so important."

Experts worry about potential of COVID-19 variant first identified in India

1 year ago
Duration 2:01
Experts are expressing worry about the spread of the B1617 COVID-19 variant, first identified in India, which has already been detected in Canada. One major concern is whether the variant’s double mutation could make vaccines less effective.

If there's a gold standard, Canada gets bronze: expert

There is a gold standard of border measures to curb COVID-19 — and Canada is not meeting it, said Kelley Lee, Canada research chair in global health governance at Simon Fraser University. 

"I'd say maybe Canada is like a bronze medal standard, possibly," she told Galloway.

"We have a long list of exemptions, we have some loopholes to close, we have quarantine measures that need to be more strictly enforced."

There are more than a dozen categories listed as exemptions on the federal government's advisory on travel restrictions, including essential workers, Canadian or visiting armed forces, diplomats and people whose presence is deemed to be "in the national interest." Anyone who does travel still faces a mandatory quarantine.

Lee pointed to places like Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, where strict quarantine measures are supplemented with robust testing, and track and trace, for a package of "pre-border, at the border, and within the border" efforts.

Kelley Lee said it's also crucial to implement these measures early, and continuously, rather than reacting to COVID-19 surges as they present themselves. (Simon Fraser University)

She said it's also crucial to implement these measures early, and continuously, rather than reacting to COVID-19 surges as they present themselves.

"We need a more comprehensive approach, one that is really screening every traveller and testing and quarantining them regardless of where they come from," she said.

"Targeting hotspots, as we're calling them, it's not the effective way to go."

She agreed with Blair's assertion that Canada has layers of protection, but said "those layers aren't stitched together, there are many holes in the system."

Lee wants to see a blanket set of measures, with very few exemptions.

"Those who are exempt can be vaccinated," she said. 

"That way people aren't still coming in and bringing variants into the country."

Travellers avoid hotel quarantine by crossing at Canada-U.S. land border

1 year ago
Duration 2:17
Travellers coming to Canada from the U.S. are avoiding hotel quarantine by taking flights close to the border, then walking or driving into Canada. Some snowbirds say there should be different rules for people who spend months at a time in the U.S. and are fully vaccinated.

Canada 'not an island': Blair

On Thursday, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown called for Pearson International Airport to be closed except for essential cargo and flights.

Blair said the federal government won't do that because "our economies and our societies are fully integrated with our neighbours to the south."

Canada is "not an island 13,000 miles out in the middle of the Pacific," he said, adding that keeping essential supply chains moving required the controlled movement of goods and people across Canada's borders.

Blair said most Canadians have complied with travel restrictions, but added that "there have always been scofflaws in this country, and people who selfishly choose to ignore the rules."

He said that "those selfish individuals who choose not to obey the law and obey the rules — they're putting themselves, they're putting their families and they're putting their community at risk."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Paul MacInnis, Joana Draghici and Samira Mohyeddin.

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